Suppose you regularly troll online and live in Australia. In that case, it is time you adopt another pastime as social media companies operating in the country could soon be mandated to reveal the identities of anonymous users. In a new bill being drafted, the federal government could ensure hiding behind the keyboard to torment online users is coming to a relieving end.
It would become a law for social media platforms to collect details of every user and be forced by the courts to hand them over when cases of defamation come up. In the same bill, social media companies will share liability for the content their users post. The first draft is expected soon, and it will get to the parliament next year.
Explaining the thinking behind the proposed laws, Prime Minister Scott Morrison says, “The rules that exist in the real world must exist in the digital and online world. The online world shouldn’t be a wild west, where bots and bigots and trolls and others can anonymously go around and harm people and hurt people.”
In addition, social media companies will be mandated to create a mechanism for people who feel defamed online to register their complaints and request for the offending materials to be taken down by the poster. When the poster refuses to take down the defaming post, and the complainant wants to pursue a court action, the social media company will request permission from the poster to release the poster’s personal details to the complainant. When the poster refuses permission, the courts can order the social media platform to release the poster’s details for the court case to proceed.
The Prime Minister has even promised the government’s intervention in cases where social media companies try to wear out complainants by delaying the release of an offending poster’s details.
“We will be looking for test cases that can reinforce these laws. So if the digital companies or others think they’re only just going to have to be dealing with perhaps someone of little means seeking to pursue this, then we will look for those cases. We will back them in the courts, and we will take them on.”
The Prime Minister is even considering setting up a unit in the public defender’s office that will take up such cases on behalf of people who can’t afford to pursue a court case with social media companies.
While it is not clear yet what personal details social media companies will be required to collect, they would likely involve email addresses, names, and phone numbers.
The proposal will apply to both existing and new social media users, but the social media companies will have to figure out how to collect the data. However, they would not be required to actively monitor what their users post or pull down potentially defamatory content. They only need to address complaints made by users.
The Prime Minister is not bothered about consulting social media companies in drafting the proposal, although he claims they are in contact regularly. “It’s not so much a discussion, I’m telling them what we’re doing, and I’m expecting them to respond. And I will keep taking it further until they continue to do the responsible thing.”
Another thing the proposal will clear up is who is responsible for content published online. For example, a media outlet is held accountable for readers’ comments on what it posts on social media platforms like Facebook when the readers’ comments are potentially defamatory. However, the new proposal will shift the responsibility to the social media company. In turn, these social media companies will be able to shield themselves from liability with the government’s proposed complaint mechanism.
The call for social media companies to do more in combating online trolling is supported by the Attorney-General, Michaelia Cash, who said, “Social media services need to step up, and they need to understand that they have a responsibility in this regard. And that is why this important step providing clarity to all Australians, but in particular, to social media companies — you will be deemed the publisher.”
It appears there is no significant opposition to this proposed bill as Federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese conceded it was not too much to ask social media companies to ascertain the identity of users of their platforms.
“It shouldn’t be beyond the capacity of social media to be able to identify people who are engaged in inappropriate activity online. Just like if someone [in a public space] says something that’s defamatory or inappropriate or hurtful, they’re doing it face to face, you can identify them. People shouldn’t be able to hide behind anonymous Twitter accounts online and engage in inappropriate activity.”
However, Albanese said his party would wait to see the proposal’s details before taking a stand. But he expressed concerns about how easy it would be for users to evade being identified, as Australia could only enforce the proposal on accounts operating in the country.