Internet trolls face huge penalties under proposed new laws

20th May 2021

Internet trolls, bullies, abusers and anyone who threatens another person or posts revenge porn images online could face fines of up to $111,000 under new laws proposed for Australia.

The Federal Government introduced the Online Safety Bill 2021 to Parliament in February 2021, heralding the world’s toughest takedown laws for online abuse, including new powers to unmask anonymous internet trolls.

Shutting down the sharing of terrorist acts and extremist activities online

This Bill will give the eSafety Commissioner the power to respond rapidly and block websites that are sharing ‘crisis events’, such as terrorist acts like the Christchurch shooting. This means that the Commissioner could ask internet service providers to block public access to terrorist or extremely violent content for a limited period of time.

The legislation has now assumed even greater significance after extremist followers of the then President Trump used social media to help organise the storming of the US Capitol in Washington in January 2021.

It will be interesting to see whether this proposed legislation could also be used to stifle extremist political language and the spreading of conspiracy theories, such as those of followers of QAnon and anti-vaxxers.

New laws improve protections against harmful online abuse

Cyber abuse is defined in s7 of the Bill as material that an ordinary reasonable person would interpret as intending to cause serious harm. Too many people, especially women, have been subjected to online threats and bullying, with sustained online abuse tragically leading to severe mental harm and suicide.

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher commented that the proposed legislation would address online abuse constituting ‘serious harm’, such as threats to rape or kill, as well as racist attacks committed by internet trolls.

However, Mr Fletcher has also said that the legislation needs to be balanced with the right to freedom of speech and that the provisions would apply only when the abuse is targeted towards particular adults rather than when it is more generalised.

Internet trolls and social media sites could face hefty fines under new legislation

Social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, as well as gaming platforms, will have to erase harmful content within 24 hours, instead of the 48 hours allowed under existing laws protecting children (see s29 of the Enhancing Online Safety Act 2015 (Cth)).

Under the new legislation, the relevant platforms will be forced to monitor data and report activities that involve what Mr Fletcher has described as ‘digital lynch mobs’ ganging up on victims.

Mr Fletcher warned that internet trolls could lose their homes if they can’t pay the hefty fines. If corporations such as Twitter allow the abuse to remain on their sites, they could be fined up to $555,000.

‘You should not do or say things online that you wouldn’t do in the physical world,’ Mr Fletcher said. ‘Don’t think you can get away with it and nobody knows who you are, because your identity can be uncovered and you can be subject to action by authorities.’

If the proposed laws are passed, it will be a huge step forward in protecting Australians from harmful cyber abuse.

This is an edited version of an article first published on Stacks Law.

Anneka Frayne is the Director of Stacks Law Firm in Tamworth, working in family law, wills and estates and disputes and litigation.

The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

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Tags: technology online Abuse