Tackling individual harms and systemic reform in 2021-22

Over the past year, our lives continued to be shaped by the challenges of a global pandemic. The ongoing shift towards learning, working and connecting online exposed us all to more online risks. Some we knew. Others were new. All of them remain the focus of eSafety’s work.

Our response was straight from our operating model playbook – prevention of harms through research, investigative insights, programs and raising awareness; protection of Australians through regulation and investigations; being proactive by staying ahead of technology trends, encouraging industry to improve user safety, and strengthening our impact at home and across international borders.

When the Australian Parliament enacted legislation on 23 January 2022, it ushered in a new era of wider and more effective regulatory power for eSafety. 

The Online Safety Act 2021 reinforces eSafety’s role as a world leader in online safety and keeps Australia at the forefront in the global fight against online abuse and harm.

We spent much of this past year planning for the Online Safety Act and issuing regulatory guidance to prepare industry and the public around eSafety’s approach to implementing the legislation. 

For the first time, there is a clear set of fundamental safety requirements set out for online service providers - the Basic Online Safety Expectations. The Online Safety Act also provides for the development of new mandatory codes by industry to apply to their online activities. In September 2021, we released our Industry Codes Position Paper to help guide industry to develop these codes with clear expectations around those outcomes likely to be found to provide appropriate community safeguards (the statutory test). 

Together, the Basic Online Safety Expectations and the new industry codes/standards regime outline how eSafety will work with the tech industry to create a modern and fit-for-purpose online safety ecosystem.

We want to make sure these systemic reforms serve their intended purpose – moving away from the status quo and introducing greater levels of safety protection for citizens and much greater levels of industry responsibility, transparency and accountability for society at large.

Our Safety by Design initiative affirms that building safety into tech products and services is not only better for people, but also better for business. We released our risk assessment tools in June 2021 and they have now been accessed in more than 46 countries. These Safety by Design tools can be used to help both start-ups or enterprises identify and address systemic weaknesses to help better prepare them for compliance with the Act’s regulatory schemes.

This work has extended to Safety by Design adoption by banks, dating platforms and the augmented reality/virtual reality communities, and to ensuring these principles and practices are embedded into new platforms and paradigms such as the metaverse and the Web 3.0 world.

We are going beyond industry to work with the education sector to make sure Safety by Design concepts are now incorporated into Australia’s school curriculum, and at the university level, so we can start building the next generation of ethical engineers, data scientists and product designers.

As the time Australians spent online increased during the pandemic, reporting about all forms of online abuse to eSafety hit record levels.

In remediating cyberbullying harms in 2021–22, we received 1,542 complaints about serious cyberbullying targeting Australian children, made 217 informal removal requests, and were successful in having 88% of material removed. 

In responding to adult cyber abuse, our new scheme received 1,243 complaints over the reporting period and we made 212 informal requests to online service providers seeking removal of material, and were successful in having 83% of material removed.

In tackling image-based abuse, we received 4,169 reports, made 485 removal requests, and were successful in having 88% of material removed. 

In our fight against illegal content, eSafety investigated 15,654 URLs about potentially prohibited online content, prioritising child sexual abuse material. We identified 11,105 URLs that were referred to global partners for removal and law enforcement. 

This past year of research produced new insights into many facets of the online lives of Australians.

In response to identified gaps in online safety education and to identify the best pedagogies to help effect long-term behavioural change, eSafety developed a world-first Best Practice Framework for all Australian schools.

eSafety ramped up efforts to protect at-risk voices online:

  • Can I just share my story? investigates how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women living in remote and regional areas experience technology-facilitated abuse.
  • Protecting LGBTIQ+ voices online explores how people who identify as LGBTIQ+ are affected by adult cyber abuse and online abuse between members within a community.
  • For my safety examines the experiences of technology-facilitated abuse among women living with intellectual or cognitive disability.
  • Mind the Gap studies children’s online lives and uncovered the ‘digital disconnect’ between what children are experiencing online and what parents know – or don’t know – about what they are encountering online. 
  • Women In The Spotlight: How online abuse impacts women in their working lives highlights women’s lived experiences of targeted online harassment, and points to the need for greater action by online platforms and employers to prevent and respond to online abuse. 

This body of research shows how our work at eSafety touches the lives of so many Australians in so many ways and how we leverage this evidence base to inform our education and awareness efforts.

With the vast majority of our regulatory targets domiciled overseas and the online harms regulatory environment rapidly changing, we work with partners at home and around the world, keenly aware that an all-of-society responsibility that knows no borders is critical.
This past year, we maintained dialogue with regulators in the United Kingdom, Ireland, the European Union, the Republic of Korea and Fiji – to share information, strengthen online safety standards, and help build capacity. We also provided insights and operational advice to stakeholders in Canada, the US, and across the Asia-Pacific.

eSafety regularly contributes to global dialogues and projects, including holding board positions on the WePROTECT Global Alliance and INHOPE. This included taking part in more than 25 international fora, including the G7 Future of Tech Forum, the OECD, the World Economic Forum, NetHope and the End Violence Against Children Summit.

With so much of their lives now online, we also turned our attention to bolstering our efforts to represent the lived experiences of younger Australians.

We formed an Online Safety Youth Advisory Council to give young people a voice in shaping future online safety policy and in designing youth-centred initiatives. We also worked with young creatives to launch SCROLL: a youth campaign by Gen Z for Gen Z about what to do when things go wrong online – on the platforms they use and in parlance they identify with. 

Safer Internet Day gets bigger each year, and for 2022, we called on Australians to share how they, ‘play it safe and fair online.’ We had 26,000 visits to the Safer Internet Day web page; 5,300 campaign kit downloads; 4,100 resource downloads for educators and families; 41,500 participants in virtual classrooms and webinars; and more than 500 media stories published or broadcast.

As the world’s first regulator dedicated solely to online safety, we are uniquely placed to understand the risks and benefits of being online.

We will continue to build the capability we need to mature as an organisation so we can face the many challenges the online world will generate now and into the future. We’ll get better at fighting the threats we know, and prepare well for the ones we know are coming.

Read the eSafety Commissioner's 2021-22 Annual Report.