Silence is golden. At least that’s what I was told when I was younger.
How things have changed.
Today, people can be silenced for many reasons and in many ways. In a 24/7 connected world, the capacity to silence others, and be silenced, is only an anonymous mouse-click away.
Since I became eSafety Commissioner in 2017, my focus has been on both promoting and protecting diverse Australian voices online whilst seeking to make it harder for those who would want to supress or attack these voices.
As a global pioneer in this space, eSafety has worked for six years to provide a safety net for our citizens, underpinned by resources, advice and support for everyone to have a safer online experience.
In August 2020, amidst global turmoil which saw a huge shift in how we all engaged online, we published an important statement, Protecting Voices at Risk Online. This statement - based on rigorous research and investigative insights –identified those in our community most likely to be the target of online abuse and our strategic priorities to help tackle them.
Sadly, our research confirmed what we intuitively knew – that some communities are more at-risk of being targeted online, and at-risk of serious harm. Cuts in person-to-person interaction also meant that for many of these individuals the online ‘lifeline’ became an environment that became increasingly weaponised exposing them to more hate and distress.
Our research at that time found:
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples experience online hate speech at more than double (33%) the national average in Australia (14%);
- For those who identify as LGBTIQ+, also receive elevated levels of targeted abuse, with 30% experiencing hate speech (compared to 14% for the rest of the population);
- People from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds experience online hate speech at higher levels (18%) than the national average in Australia (14%);
- For people with disability, abuse disproportionately tends to target their disability and/or physical appearance;
- Women face disproportionate levels of online abuse that is sexualised and violent. Two-thirds of eSafety’s youth-based cyberbullying reports, image-based abuse reports and informal adult cyber abuse reports are made by women and girls. Women and their children experiencing domestic and family violence almost always experience technology facilitated abuse designed to extend coercion and control over their lives.
Helping protect voices
In the 12 months since we issued our Protecting Voices at Risk Online statement, we have taken solid steps to ensure that those individuals and communities most at risk of online hate and violence are empowered and not silenced.
During this time, the team at eSafety has been working closely with various communities across Australia to help gain a better understanding of their online experiences, to allow us to deliver meaningful support and help drive behavioural change. Here is a snapshot of some of our recent undertakings:
Children continue to be a focus of our work. This year we have embarked on a new program to support children aged 5–8 years, building on the foundations laid in our early years program. We reached over 136,000 children and young people through our virtual classrooms last financial year, and we released an important research paper that explores the experiences of children and technology-facilitated abuse in situations of domestic and family violence.
We have started work on a pilot project to develop online safety guidance for caseworkers and agency staff in the out-of-home care sector. Children in foster homes or under the care of child protection services tend to be at greater risk for negative online experiences compared to their peers in more traditional family structures. These resources will better enable agency staff to support these critical frontline workers and the children in their care.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
eSafety continues to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to ensure our resources are co-designed and meet their unique needs. This year, we undertook a review of our engaging Be Deadly Online resource and a cultural review of our existing adult cyber abuse materials and will be refreshing these popular resources for even broader distribution and use.
We have also provided grants to eight Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations across Australia to create culturally appropriate, place-based resources and training to support women in these communities experiencing technology-facilitated abuse and empower frontline workers to help their clients.
Our Diverse Communities team has also been working closely with LGBTIQ+ organisations across Australia to develop targeted resources that will help address the issue of online abuse. We’ve undertaken research, held workshops, roundtables, and one-on-one sessions to co-create resources that will provide practical support and help to individuals who are some of the most targeted online.
People with disability
We are about to launch a training and support package to help women with disability identify and deal with technology-facilitated abuse. And we have also begun our work to support adults with disability in dealing with cyber abuse.
Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Communities
We partnered with the Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner during the first COVID-19 lockdowns to assist in the development of resources to support community in dealing with the increase in online hate. And our development of resources in community languages across multiple programs is ongoing.
These new initiatives complement our existing programs which we continue to develop in response to community needs: Be Connected - supporting older Australians, eSafetyWomen, and eSafety grants supporting diverse communities.
Building a better system
Along with our programs and engagement with diverse communities, we have also been working closely with industry to help ensure Australians’ online experiences are safe and positive.
In June, eSafety released interactive online safety assessment tools for the tech industry, as part of our Safety by Design initiative, a proactive and preventative approach focusing on embedding safety into the culture and leadership of tech firms.
We have been steering industry to be more accountable and transparent in the way in which they develop, design and deploy safety protections in their platforms by embedding them at the frontend rather than retrofitting after the damage has been done.
A focus of this is to ensure that platforms engage with diverse and at-risk groups throughout the product development and review lifecycle to assess, identify and eliminate potential harms. This includes using ‘safeguarding’ tools to find and remove harassment, racism, ableism, homophobic and misogynistic abuse, and making reporting tools easier to find. But, we also know that industry best practice in this area sees platforms proactively monitoring for hateful conduct, and detecting and removing harmful content before it reaches the intended target.
Pleasingly, a few Big Tech players have already signed onto eSafety’s Safety by Design principles and initiative. But there is more to be done and we will continue to work with industry to strike the right balance so that Australians can safely interact online.
New online safety laws
While countries around the world look to take their first cautious steps towards online regulation, Australia is again leading the world with the recent passing of new online safety legislation.
The Australian Government passed important reforms in July this year providing eSafety with a set of innovative powers to protect Australians better and to hold both industry and perpetrators to account.
In a global first, eSafety will operate a new adult cyber abuse scheme modelled on our child cyberbullying scheme, with significant financial penalties for perpetrators, as a strong deterrent for those who commit serious online abuse.
The Online Safety Act 2021 will protect Australians on all online platforms where harm occurs – not just social media.
These new powers come into operation on 23 January, 2022. eSafety will continue to provide a compassionate citizen-centric service while exercising our new powers in a balance and proportionate way. The new adult cyber abuse powers targeting serious harm targeting an Australian individual will enable eSafety to consider intersectional factors, particularly if the abuse is targeting an individual based on their gender, sexuality, ethnicity or religion.
The challenges of protecting Australians online are numerous and ever-changing. eSafety is committed to continually improving and adapting our education and prevention strategies, tailored programs, and reporting schemes to continue to protect and support those most at risk of online harm.
However, even with strengthened powers to protect diverse groups, we know we will never regulate our way out of online abuse. Protection, through this new legislation with meaningful remedies and supports for those affected by online harms, needs to be applied in tandem with prevention – in the form of undertaking research and developing further educational materials to better understand and limit these social harms.
Armed with new laws and the commitment to community consultation and co-creation, we will be better placed to help those whose voices are being silenced.