Online Bullying – Safety for all

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In a world first effort to crack down on cyberbullying (online bullying), the Federal government has announced its plans to introduce a new Online Safety Bill (the Bill) to protect Australians from online abuse. Internet trolls, bullies and offenders could face fines of up to $111,000.00, whilst companies failing to comply could face civil penalties of up to $550,000.00.

With ever increasing rates of suicide and other psychological damage resulting from abusive comments and harmful content on social media platforms, the eSafety Commissioner, Julie Grant, will extend protections against cyber-abuse to both children and adults. The online watchdog’s ability to unmask and/or identify anonymous or fake accounts publishing or streaming illegal content will be strengthened.

For companies, including Facebook and Google, full cooperation and transparency will be required and the Commissioner could enforce the removal of image-based content and cyberbullying content within 24 hours of any notice and release the personal details of perpetrators behind fake accounts. All offenders (both individuals and companies) will be forced to apologise to victims.  

The new bill will also introduce “basic online safety expectations” for all digital platforms to keep Australian safe. Those within the digital industry will be subjected to mandatory reporting requirements to ensure services are compliant and provide the Commissioner with insight about how cyberbullying is addressed by individual services.

Under the Commonwealth Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth), it is an offence to harass, menace or cause offence (including making threats or causing serious harm to a person) using a ‘carriage service’ (mobile phones, emails, landlines and internet). The Bill will further bolster protection for Australians from such conduct. Like most Australian states, Queensland has laws covering stalking, blackmail, criminal defamation and other unlawful uses of technology.

How will this affect defamatory conduct?

It is important to distinguish the difference between civil defamation, criminal defamation, and the purpose of the Bill.

Civil defamation is a tortious act involving the publication of unsubstantiated facts which lowers an individual’s reputation in the eyes of the public. Lawful excuses are available under Division 2 of the Defamation Act 2005 (Qld) (Defamation Act). Criminal defamation is a misdemeanor (s 365 of the Criminal Code 1899 (Qld)) whereby a person publishes a defamatory matter about another (without lawful excuse under the Defamation Act), knowing the matter to be false or having no regard to the truth or otherwise of the matter, and intends to cause serious harm to that person or having no regard to whether serious harm has been caused. Both civil and criminal defamation may include verbal or written publication of defamatory matters. The Bill is specifically targeted at capturing cyberbullying and the misuse of carriage services. This means verbal publications and written publications other than those via telephone, mobile or internet will not be captured by the Bill. The Bill will by no means limit an individual’s cause of action under the Defamation Act or the Criminal Code, but rather improve protection and increase an individual’s ability to identify anonymous perpetrators hiding behind their keyboards or digital devices.

Discussions surrounding the draft bill will cease in mid-February 2021.

Online bullying, internet trolls, cyberbullying and defamation questions?

If you have any questions about defamation, have been defamed, have been a victim of cyberbullying or online bullying, please do not hesitate to contact our team. 

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