Charting a new course for a safer online world

When you think about it, it really wasn’t all that long ago that the internet was still in its infancy and the world was still very much in an analogue state.

While computers have been networked in one form or another since the 1960s, it wasn’t until the 90s when affordable personal computers met the 56k modem that the Internet really took off.

These game changing devices finally brought the internet to the masses allowing people to slip on a pair of digital boardshorts and really start surfing the web.

It was a time of great promise and it was also a time when any thought of regulation of this burgeoning industry was framed as an impediment to innovation and growth.

Of course, social media wasn’t really a thing yet – in fact Mark Zuckerberg was just 12 years old and probably more concerned with building his latest Dungeons & Dragons adventure than the world’s largest social network.

Tech companies were moving fast and breaking things and wanted only one thing from government –  to stay out of their way.

And for many decades, governments all around the world were happy to oblige.

I know this time well, because I was right there at tech policy “ground zero” in ‘96, as a young Washington DC lobbyist working for a guy named Bill at a little software company called  Microsoft.

It was us, AOL, Novell and Netscape that were big at the time and with our utopian-coloured glasses, we didn’t want to see the promise of the Internet just on the cusp of the mainstream undermined by too much taxation or regulation.

But of course, the internet we were preparing for then is vastly different to the one we all know now.

It’s really only been since the turn of the Millennium that we have experienced the full, unrelenting effect of Moore’s Law writ large: network transmission, computation, digitisation, and image-processing technologies have achieved spectacular gains.

Computing power that once needed to be housed in large rooms full of overheated transistors, could all of a sudden fit into our back pockets.

The arrival of 5G Networks heralds yet another quantum leap and it’s probably safe to say, that just like back in 1996, we have no idea where this latest evolution will lead us. 

There’s no denying the online world is a truly amazing place which has brought humanity a myriad of benefits, but along with the good, we also need to acknowledge the bad. And it’s clear, today’s internet has also become a highly enabling environment for many forms of abuse.

There’s the relentless online bullying of children, targeted misogyny, hatred and racism, the unchecked spread of disinformation and misinformation, terrorist weaponisation of social media, and the most horrifying of all, the grooming, sexual exploitation and abuse of children.

I think there’s no doubt we’ve reached a tipping point, and governments around the world are starting to wake up to the fact that what’s now playing out online is not only a threat to individual citizens, but also potentially looms as an existential threat to democracy and civilised society.

Australia was an early and decisive mover here, with the creation of eSafety back in 2015 making us the first dedicated government online safety regulator in the world whose sole purpose was the protection of its people online.

And because of this, Australia is at the very leading edge of regulation globally with a six-year head start on the rest of the world.

And as the online threats grow and evolve, so do we. Recognising the growing need to provide protection to Australians online, the Government has significantly bolstered our protective powers with important reforms that have created Australia’s Online Safety Act. 

While countries around the world take their first tentative steps towards online regulation, Australia is already reforming and improving our framework and citizen protections across a range of online harms.   

These updates include an expansion of our cyberbullying scheme to include gaming platforms and private messaging services where children are spending a lot of their online time.  Indeed, 1 in 5 kids report being cyberbullied in online games and 30% of the cyberbullying reports we’ve received this year are happening over private messaging services.

Our image-based abuse scheme will include heavy fines for perpetrators, the power to name and shame sites that repeatedly host this distressing content, and reduced timeframes for sites to remove image based abuse content. 

Our online content scheme will now be able to take action against illegal content like child sexual exploitation material no matter where it is hosted.

And in yet another world first, we’ll also begin operating a completely novel adult cyber abuse scheme which will finally give some relief to Australian adults who are the target of abuse online that is intended to cause serious harm.

New industry codes are also coming which will address issues like the proactive detection and removal of illegal content like child sexual abuse material, while also putting a greater onus on industry to shield children from harmful content like pornography which they are not emotionally or developmentally ready for.

And the Government’s Basic Online Safety Expectations will set out expectations that services are taking reasonable steps to ensure Australians can use their service safely and that that they have clear mechanisms in place to allow people to report abuse and harmful material.

eSafety will have new powers to require services to report on the extent to which they are complying with these expectations.

With all these new powers, it’s natural to wonder how, when, and where we will choose to wield them.

Building on, and drawing from, our experience of the past six years, we will continue as we have always done, by applying a harms-based lens and taking an outcomes-based approach to everything we do.

Where appropriate, we will continue our collaborative approach with industry through the operation of our regulatory schemes, both established and new, and look to continue to proactively improve safety standards across the industry through Safety by Design and encourage greater transparency and accountability.

But make no mistake, we will use all available powers at our disposal when it comes to keeping Australians safe online.

While we have graduated regulatory tools to address online harm, there will no doubt be times when immediate use of our firmer enforcement measures is needed … and warranted.

We will continue to apply our powers in a fair, transparent and proportionate way, with a focus on our primary aims of alleviating serious harm, deterring future wrongdoing and driving continuous improvement throughout the industry.

As has always been our mission, we will continually drive industry to improve their practices to make the online world a safer place.

And this will likely require industry to find a way to balance a set of fundamental human rights.

People often talk about the absolute right to freedom of expression and freedom of speech, but what about when this free speech veers headlong into the realm of targeted abuse and online harassment? Shouldn’t those on the receiving end have an equal right to exist free from online violence?

During my time at Twitter, I saw first-hand just how the cloak of unbridled free speech was used to abuse and ultimately silence voices, especially those of minorities and members of vulnerable communities I now strive so hard to protect everyday as eSafety Commissioner.

Absolute free speech often ends up taking away the free speech of others as they are driven offline by a barrage of harassment and abuse.

And when it comes to the proliferation of child sexual exploitation material online, why is it that the fundamental rights of a child, their right to human dignity, has effectively been subjugated to privacy and data protection?  

It’s also no longer good enough for companies to say “well, we’re just going to deal with illegal content on our platforms, it’s not up to us to judge what’s harmful.”

I have news for you… YES IT IS.

We’ve been down this old road before and we all know where it leads. It’s time to forge a new path where a greater responsibility is taken by industry to protect the very people who are paying the bills by using their platforms and products.

This means taking bold steps and having the courage to draw lines, because we know the free-for-all mentality online doesn’t work and never really did.