Australia’s proposed ‘anti-troll’ law will erode digital freedom

Adaptation of the Australian coat of arms, with crumbling planet.

Australia is drafting legislation purported to combat online trolling, which, if passed, would further reduce anonymity, privacy, and free speech among the country’s internet users. 

This comes after Australia’s so-called hacking bill introduced in August, which would give police new powers to surveil people through their online accounts and devices, and a ruling in September that made news sites liable for defamatory comments posted on their social media pages.

What is Australia’s ‘anti-troll’ law?

The legislation is still being drafted but is expected to be presented within this week. The laws would force social media platforms to reveal the identities of users accused of defaming individuals via comments on their sites.

The term “anti-troll” is being used by the legislation’s backers and the media but is not entirely accurate, since online bullying and harassment (actions often associated with trolling) do not necessarily fall under the legal definition of defamation, in which there must be proof that a victim’s reputation has been damaged. 

How will the law work? In 5 or more steps

To make the law work, platforms will be required to implement a complaint system that facilitates the following:

  • Someone who thinks they are being defamed can issue a complaint. 
  • The user who posted the content might then be asked to remove it. 
  • If the person refuses to remove the post or if the alleged victim wants to sue for defamation, the site is then to ask the poster for permission to reveal their contact information.
  • If the poster does not agree to reveal their information, the platform will be permitted to reveal their identity regardless.
  • If the platform refuses to divulge the user’s details or cannot identify the troll, it will be fined for defamation.

Does this law only apply to users in Australia?

The law is expected to only apply to Australia-based users. It won’t be risky for someone based in, say, the U.S. to make a comment about someone in Australia.

Why is Australia doing this?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is behind the legislation. He has compared the internet to “a Wild West where bots and bigots and trolls and others can just anonymously go around and harm people and hurt people, harass them and bully them and sledge them.” 

His solution aims to target trolls directly, rather than penalizing the platforms—although platforms will have to invest in compliance with the law’s requirements.

How will the law affect internet users and digital freedom in Australia?

Online harassment is an important issue, but the “anti-troll” law is not the way to combat it.

Yes, there is a possibility that Australia will experience a drop in internet trolling—even though, as mentioned above, “trolling” is not the same as defamation. 

But one of the grimmer ways of viewing the law is as a tool for politicians to suppress and challenge criticism. It’s likely that internet users who want to criticize a public figure on social media will also begin to self-censor to avoid falling afoul of the law.  

Meanwhile, social media companies might feel the need to collect even more information about users before allowing them to use their sites, eroding any semblance of privacy they have now.

But it’s just as likely that the country will face a more censored internet, thanks to the law. Australia has been one of the most aggressive countries in the developed world to regulate the internet, and there have been several examples of such laws that have led to platforms simply withdrawing its services from the country to avoid fines and liability. 

In September 2021, CNN blocked Australia from accessing its Facebook page, after a law holding news sites liable for defamation on their social media pages came into effect. 

In February, Australia implemented a so-called link tax, requiring platforms like Google and Facebook to pay Australian news groups for showing their articles. Facebook blocked links from Australian news sites for a time, and Google threatened to pull out of Australia entirely. Both companies eventually made deals with news publishers.

Learn more

Censorship and digital freedom

Increase your anonymity

Australian laws surrounding internet use

Online harassment

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Penny is an editor of the blog.