Australia to introduce laws to 'unmask' anonymous commenters online

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Australia to introduce laws to 'unmask' anonymous commenters online

Technical implementation left to the platforms to work out.

The Australian government wants to bring in laws that would force social media platforms to “unmask” anonymous commenters that make defamatory or abusive posts and pass their details to the complainant.

The so-called “social media anti-trolling legislation” will be introduced into parliament this week - the last sitting week of the parliament for the year.

“I'm sure it'll be able to move quickly through the parliament,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Sunday. “I expect to get strong support for this.”

Morrison took aim at "anonymous trolls" at the recent G20 Summit in late October, and is forging ahead with domestic laws to rein them in, while pledging to continue to campaign for other international jurisdictions to follow suit.

“I will campaign for these [types of laws] all around the world, as I've done on so many other occasions, with Australia taking the lead,” Morrison said.

While an exposure draft of the proposed laws is still under wraps, Attorney-General Michaelia Cash provided strong indications of what it contains.

In the first instance, anyone that doesn’t like a comment left by an anonymous user can file a complaint directly with the operator of that online platform.

The platform will be expected to stand up a functional and easy-to-use complaints and takedown process for posts that a person deems to be defamatory towards them.

Once a complaint is received, “the social media company will need to notify the online 'troll' that there has been a complaint against them,” Cash said. 

“They will need to ask the online troll to take down the material.”

Cash said that “in many cases, this will actually be the end of the matter. The online troll will take down the material and the complainant will be satisfied.”

However, if the complainant “is not satisfied, they can say to the social media company, ‘I now need the details of this person so I can commence an action against them’. 

“The social media company, therefore, needs to go to this person and, with their consent, provide their details to the complainant.”

“In other words, unmask them with either their email address, their mobile phone number or other relevant details to enable that person to take a defamation action against them.”

Cash said that if the platform was “unable to do this”, the platform operator itself could be sued.

Morrison said that the government would be on the lookout for early “test cases” for the proposed laws, and that such cases would receive unspecified backing directly from the government.

“Just to show you how serious we are about this, the Attorney will be taking a close interest. And yes, we will be looking for test cases and test cases that could reinforce these laws,” Morrison said.

“So if the digital companies or others think they can can think they're only just going to have to at the end of the day be dealing with perhaps someone of little means seeking to pursue this, then we will look for those cases where we will back them and we will back them in the courts and we will take them on. 

“We'll take them on in the parliament and we'll take them on in the courts.”

A direct complaint is not the only available mechanism; the government said people could also apply to the federal court "for an end user information disclosure order."

"In other words, they'll be able to go to the federal court and say, ‘I believe I have been defamed and I am unable to take this action any further because this person is at this point in time, anonymous’," Cash said.

"The court will therefore be able to issue to the social media service an order that they provide the complainant with the details to unmask the troll so that the complainant is able to take action against them."

Identity databases

Just how the platforms would be able to “unmask” anonymous commenters on their platforms was unclear, and Morrison indicated that, to a large extent, that wouldn’t be the government’s problem.

“The point here is we want the social media companies to fix this,” Morrison said.

“They have the wit, they have the technology, they have the innovation. They've built this world and what they have to be able to do is ensure that when someone comes and says 'who said this?', that they have an ability to be able to respond to that question and say, ‘It was them’. 

“Now, I think they have the ability to do this. I mean, digital identities, these sorts of things, it's evolving. But these companies have to take responsibility for it.”

Asked whether he supported the social media operators compiling vast databases of identity documents to meet the proposed laws, Morrison avoided the question.

However, Morrison did appear to indicate that he did not expect the laws to retroactively apply; in other words, they may only apply for accounts created after a certain date.

“It can’t be [retroactive]. No, we don’t do that,” Morrison said in response to a question.

“But [the social media platforms] need to get it sorted. 

“They better move quickly... because I'm telling you going forward, if they don't tell us who [anonymous users] are, we're coming after them.”

Morrison added: “The digital companies, I'm sure in response to this in the months ahead and years ahead, will continue to tighten up how they can ensure that they can meet the requirements of these laws and they will deal with their customers and they will make those requests. 

“But what I'm telling you is you can't hide on social media to abuse people. That's not okay in Australia, and we're making sure that it's not okay.”

Consultation

The government indicated in a statement that the release of the exposure draft of the proposed laws “will provide all Australians, the industry, states, territories and stakeholders to have their say on these important new laws.”

It did not indicate how long any consultation would remain open for submissions.

Morrison said that he had discussed his proposal “publicly and privately for some time” with the social media platforms.

However, he set the expectation that the platforms’ input may be limited.

“It's not so much a discussion. I'm telling them what we're doing, and I'm expecting them to respond, and I will keep taking it further until they continue to do the responsible thing,” he said.

The Greens said they would push for the proposed laws to be subjected to a senate inquiry.

“The Greens will this week move for the legislation to be sent to a senate inquiry for a thorough examination and to hear from experts," media and communications spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young said.

“We know this government cannot be trusted and is only out to protect themselves.

"A senate inquiry will help to determine if that’s all they are doing with these new laws.” 

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