A big year keeping Australians safer online

This year, my Office has continued to fulfil its challenging and broad remit: to lead, coordinate and advise on online safety issues to ensure all Australians have safer and more positive experiences online.

Both technology and teens are moving quickly, and I have focused on building an eSafety team and culture that strives to keep pace, be nimble, innovate and deliver compassionate citizen services. As a ‘techno-optimist’, I can see the great promise artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented reality, neural networks and other advances in technology can bring to society. But, we also need to anticipate and mitigate the risks these technologies might pose to our citizens and re-think how we regulate, collaborate and educate for better online safety outcomes for all Australians.

There is no question that the range of online safety abuses and risks we are addressing every day represent some of the most pressing societal and parenting challenges of our time. However, I do not believe these challenges are insurmountable. They fundamentally represent social and behavioural issues playing out online. This is why we need to take a long term, constructive and public health approach to making lasting cultural and behavioural change across the nation. As the only government agency in the world dedicated to safeguarding the online safety of its citizens, I am proud that Australia is leading the way by forming and supporting a consolidated eSafety Office. We are keen to help other countries do the same and have been sharing our approach and lessons with interested parties in the US, Korea, Singapore, Canada, Ireland and the UK.

The Office takes a holistic approach to improving online safety, anchored by a range of prevention strategies including research, evaluation, education, and awareness campaigns. We provide responsive reporting services for those experiencing youth-based cyberbullying, adult cyber abuse, image-based abuse and for reporting illegal online content, especially child sexual abuse material. Being a relatively small agency with an expansive remit, we have built and nurtured a range of partnerships and stakeholder forums—including the Online Safety Consultative Working Group and the eSafety & Mental Health Steering Group—to ensure that we can effectively coordinate and complement the work of others. We have also worked hard to raise awareness and drive more Australians to our website—the gateway to our resources, guidance and reporting services. We were extremely proud to have brought 240 other organisations along with us on Safer Internet Day in 2018, collectively reaching 15 million Australians with the important message of demonstrating respect online.

Based on our research and our interaction with victims, we have been alarmed to see how quickly the malicious practice of image-based abuse is proliferating. One in 10 Australians aged 18 years and over have had their intimate images shared online without their consent. For more vulnerable cohorts, the risk of this abuse increases significantly—a staggering one in four women between the ages of 18–24 are affected, one in three members of the LGBTIQ community are impacted and for Indigenous Australians or Australians with a disability, one out of two are likely to fall prey to this insidious practice. Regardless of one’s background, image-based abuse is devastating. Not only is it a callous act of betrayal, it causes long-term trauma due to the victim never really knowing how far the image has spread, who has seen it and where and when it may reappear online.

In October 2017, eSafety launched an image-based abuse portal that provides reporting options, support and resources to Australians who have experienced image-based abuse, as well as their families, friends and bystanders. Between October and June 2018, eSafety received 259 reports of image-based abuse. Each case is unique and complex, and our team of passionate, committed investigators works diligently to provide efficient, compassionate service to each person seeking assistance. Despite the material usually being hosted overseas, our Image-based Abuse Team has succeeded in having material removed in around 80 per cent of cases where removal was requested.

Key to our success in resolving these matters is our ongoing ability to work closely with our social media partners and other online platforms to ensure the rapid removal of offending material. This year we built on our success in this regard through the Cyberbullying Complaints Scheme, welcoming three new social media services to become Tier 1 partners in the fight against cyberbullying: Musical.ly, Yubo and Roblox. These services are incredibly popular with young Australians, and we are pleased they have shown their commitment to improving the safety of their users by engaging proactively with eSafety.

Indeed, one of eSafety’s core commitments remains the protection of young Australians, providing a safety net for children who experience serious cyberbullying. We know cyberbullying has a nexus to conflict in the schoolyard, but it is particularly insidious for young people as it is highly visible to their peers whilst often hidden from parents and educators. This year our dedicated cyberbullying team received 409 complaints about serious cyberbullying affecting Australian children. This early intervention in helping to get damaging content removed from social media sites is an important first step. Our team, if required, will also work with the students, parents and school community to help minimise the risk of the conflict continuing.

The third arm of our investigative division is our CyberReport team, which is committed to disrupt the distribution and availability of online child sexual abuse material. The CyberReport team receives reports from the public and law enforcement and investigates the worst of the worst online content, referring it for takedown through our global network of partner organisations, including through the International Association of Internet Hotlines (INHOPE). This year, the CyberReport team finalised 13,131 investigations. Of these investigations, 10,229 items of prohibited or potentially prohibited content were identified, with 78 per cent meeting the definition of child sexual abuse material.

The work that the CyberReport team does is confronting but so critical to preserving human dignity, as we know that behind every image is a child being sexually abused. Child sexual abuse victims are traumatised by the knowledge that content memorialising their abuse remains in circulation on the internet. The work that we do through our INHOPE partners results in content being taken down in a matter of days, ending the cycle of re-victimisation. The team also works closely with law enforcement, both domestically and internationally, referring valuable intelligence to support their important work.

In addition to providing a safety net for Australians to report online abuse, we know that proactive, preventative measures are crucial to creating long-term positive change in the online world. This year we continued to develop and deliver world-leading, evidence-based resources and tools to enhance the online safety of our citizens. This includes audience-specific content for parents, educators, young people, older Australians, women and other vulnerable citizens who are experiencing technology-facilitated abuse.

One in four Australian women has experienced emotional abuse from a former or current partner, and one in six has experienced physical violence. In 98 per cent of domestic and family violence situations, technology-facilitated abuse is an extension of this real-world violence, where predators will use technology to abuse, seek to control and stalk.

eSafetyWomen empowers women to manage technology risks and abuse and take control of their online experiences through awareness raising, training for frontline domestic violence workers, and advice and resources for women to help stay safe online in the context of family and domestic violence situations. This year we’ve trained more than 3,000 frontline workers face-to-face and will upskill many more through our innovative online training program.

Our outreach program extends the focus of prevention through education, meeting broader community needs by providing nationally coordinated online safety education through various delivery platforms and resources. Our outreach work supports an extensive education program for school students, pre-service teachers, educators, parents, carers, community organisations, sporting groups, law enforcement, welfare agencies and mental health and youth workers.

We are able to scale our efforts in this regard and reach a wider audience by delivering interactive webinars, such as our Virtual Classrooms program, which reached over 140,000 students and teachers across the country in the past year, exploring the latest issues young people are dealing with and how best to manage the risks.

Our education resources—indeed all of the programs and resources developed by eSafety—are firmly evidence-based. Through our comprehensive research program, we continue to play a leadership role in promoting, coordinating and undertaking research into digital participation and online safety issues. This year we released ground-breaking research across a range of topics, including image-based abuse, sexting behaviours amongst young people, online gaming and the digital behaviour of older Australians.

Older Australians are the least represented population online in Australia, but they can also be among the most trusting and vulnerable. Recognising the digital literacy needs of older Australians, in November 2017 eSafety launched the Be Connected website, providing resources to help older Australians increase their digital know-how, feel more confident and know how to stay safe online.

All Australians deserve to feel safe and empowered to enjoy the positive benefits of the online world, while confidently managing and mitigating the risks.

We’re proud of what we’ve achieved in this regard over the past year, but we know there is always more to be done. We stand ready to face the challenges and embrace the opportunities inherent in the rapidly evolving online world. We will continue to innovate and go the extra mile to ensure we deliver the best possible services and resources to improve the online safety of all Australians.

This foreword was originally published in the eSafety Office’s 2017-18 Annual Report.