Anonymous online trolls to be unmasked under new law in Australia

·3-min read
Google and Facebook logos and Australian flag are displayed in this file image - Dado Ruvic/Dado Ruvic
Google and Facebook logos and Australian flag are displayed in this file image - Dado Ruvic/Dado Ruvic

Anonymous social media trolls in Australia could be unmasked and sued in court if they refuse to take down abusive messages under a new law proposed by the government.

Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, announced the new legislation on Sunday as he warned that social media abusers would no longer be able to hide behind anonymous accounts.

"Social media can too often be a cowards' palace, where the anonymous can bully, harass and ruin lives without consequence," he said, as he accused online trolls of trying to destroy people's lives while "hiding" in their "basements."

"We would not accept these faceless attacks in a school, at home, in the office, or on the street. And we must not stand for it online, on our devices and in our homes," he said.

Under the Australian proposals, a complaints system would be set up which allows victims of online abuse to order a social media company to take down the offending content.

If the social media platform refuses to take the content down then it will be ordered to provide "identifying details of trolls to victims, without consent, which will then enable a defamation case to be lodged," according to the government.

And in cases where the platform refuses or fails to identify an online abuser, it could find itself liable for the costs of a defamation court case.

The plan is somewhat similar to calls in Britain to enact a "David's law," named after the murdered Tory MP David Amess, which would crack down on social media abuse of public figures.

Mr Amess, who was fatally stabbed in October, had warned before his death of a "toxic" environment online that permitted vile abuse of MPs, his colleagues in Westminster have said.

In an television address on Sunday, Mr Morrison said it was up to social media firms to take more responsibility for online abuse in Australia as they "created the space and they need to make it safe, and if they won't, we will make them."

"Anonymous trolls are on notice, you will be named and held to account for what you say. Big tech companies are on notice, remove the shield of anonymity or be held to account for what you publish," he said.

"The online world should not be a wild west where bots and bigots and trolls and others are anonymously going around and can harm people," he added.

According to local media reports, a draft of the law will be published shortly so it can be scrutinised by the public before it comes into force.

Meta, the firm previously known as Facebook which operates the social media platforms Facebook and Instagram, declined to comment on the law. Twitter also declined to comment, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. Google, which owns Youtube, has not yet commented on the proposals.

Social media platforms have been strongly criticised by the British, American and Australian authorities in the past over a reluctance to tackle online abuse.

Two major Australian media companies have welcomed the proposal, including News Corp Australia, which publishes The Australian, The Herald Sun and the Australian newspaper.

"These are tough new world-first laws that will give Australian courts the power to order social media giants to identify perpetrators or risk incurring hefty defamation payouts,” said Michael Miller, the executive chairman of News Corp Australia.

Nine Entertainment Co., another major Australian media firm, said: "For some time now, Nine, along with other media companies, has been campaigning for reform of defamation laws, to bring them into the 21st century."

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