Australian PM announces law to reduce social media abuses

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison Sunday announced that his administration will introduce legislation to require social media companies to have “proper processes” to take down abusive or trolling content to dismantle the “shield of anonymity” that emboldens bigots online. In a press conference broadcast by ABC Australia, Morrison asserted that all people should feel safe online. He specifically noted that women suffer the brunt of online harassment, stalking, and bullying.

Morrison believes that social media companies “have created this [online] world, and they need to make it safe.” Under the law, Morrison hopes to hold individuals accountable for their online words. He noted that “the rules that exist in the real world must exist in the digital and online world.” If a social media company allows a user to hide their identity behind a “digital shield,” the company will be responsible for the user’s abusive content.

Australian Attorney-General Michaelia Cash referenced a recent case in Australia’s High Court: Fairfax Media publications Pty Ltd v. Voller Nationwide News Pty Limited. Under Fairfax, individuals are the “publishers” of their own social media pages and are liable for defamatory content, even if they mistakenly reposted such content.

Cash called the ruling uncertain and explained that, under the new legislation, social media companies would be the publisher of any defamatory content on their websites for liability purposes. However, if a company designates a compliance entity to provide defamation victims with the true identity of their anonymous trolls, the company can avoid liability in court. This process will effectively “unmask” online trolls and bigots, according to Cash.

According to Morrison, the law will be introduced in parliament this week, and his government will actively look for “test cases” to use the law in court.