eSafety’s annual report - a year in review

eSafety’s annual report for the financial year 2020-21 has recently been published. Below is an abridged version of my foreword, for what has been a busy time for the organisation!

As the 2020-21 financial year came to a close, Parliament passed historic new reform legislation, the Online Safety Act 2021. The Act gives eSafety wider, more effective powers to help all Australians have safer, more positive experiences online.

Passage of these reforms represents a vote of confidence in eSafety’s achievements to-date, as the world’s first online safety regulator and a very public signal that online abuse will not be tolerated in Australia.

This came at the culmination of a challenging year when the entire world was grappling with the ongoing impacts of the pandemic. The shift towards online learning, working and connecting continued for millions of Australians, exposing many citizens to unfamiliar and increased online risks.

eSafety responded with increased support, delivering heightened levels of compassionate citizen service through our regulatory schemes, rolling out new and improved initiatives for both the prevention and mitigation of harms.

We continued to set the international online safety agenda, producing world-leading advice and resources, and demonstrating that innovation can uplift responses in every nation.

This was highlighted by the launch of our Safety by Design self-assessment tools and safety resources for investors and venture capitalists.

With the release of these free assessment tools, and the information and best technology practice guidance underpinning them, the industry is officially on notice – there’s now no excuse for users being left unprotected from known risks, or without reporting and response mechanisms to support them if they experience online abuse.

Never has it been more important to address the harmful behaviour and content that was previously allowed to flourish online without smart and pragmatic regulation. The lives of ordinary people are badly damaged when online abuse goes unchecked. We see daily the anguish caused when intimate photos or videos are posted and shared online without consent, and we see the devastatingly irreversible effects of child sexual abuse and exploitation.

There were over 1.4 million visits to our website, which is a national hub for reporting online abuse and finding self-help and general online safety information.

We increased and improved our resources designed to raise awareness of risks, explain preventative strategies and provide tips for dealing with the most common online safety issues Australians grapple with.

We continued to support and grow digital literacy programs for seniors, though the ‘Be Connected’ learning modules to help build confidence while reducing social isolation. Following up on our commitments in our ‘Protecting Voices At-Risk Online’ declaration, we added more tailored advice for those most at risk of online harms, including First Nations Australians, people who are culturally or linguistically diverse, LGBTIQ+ or who may live with disability.

Our research continued to furnish a solid evidence base for eSafety initiatives. We released research into negative online experiences, confidence and resilience, and examined how COVID-19 was impacting online activities and attitudes.

In a year when women across the world raised their voices to call out abuse and discrimination, eSafety delivered critical training to disability support workers, and domestic and family violence workers. In addition, eSafety’s WITS program was relaunched as ‘Women In The Spotlight’, with a focus on protecting all women whose working lives require them to have an online presence.

Throughout the year, eSafety’s outreach team delivered professional learning for teachers, mental health workers, social workers and peak sporting bodies, including partnership with the AFL in the #PlayItFairOnline campaign.

Our education and training engagement increased by 67%, with the number of primary school students reached through our Virtual Classroom webinars growing by 98%. There were also record levels of attendance at our webinars for parents and carers.

Safer Internet Day once again provided an opportunity to highlight online safety and let Australians know they can come to us for information and support. The event was the most successful to date, with more than 61,000 Australians reached through eSafety webinars, 4,000 organisations registered as supporters, and unprecedented nation-wide media coverage.

In 2020–21, our ‘Tech trends and challenges’ position statements highlighted the reality of online sexual behaviours among young people under 18, the dilemmas posed by anonymity and identity shielding, the growth of sexual extortion and the potentially negative impacts of hyper-realistic immersive technologies.

eSafety shared our experiences and observations with governments and organisations around the globe, supporting their efforts to protect and safeguard their own citizens online.

The new Online Safety Act, to take effect from 23 January 2022, will give us a vast new tool kit – providing citizen protections no other country in the world can claim.

Our preparation for the Online Safety Act now includes establishing the new functions while improving our systems and processes and building our organisational capacity and skills. As always, our teams are already rising to the challenge.

Read the full foreword in the 2020-21 eSafety annual report.