Social media companies could be forced to give names and contact details, under new anti-troll laws
Social media companies could be forced to reveal the identities of anonymous users in an effort to crack down on online trolling, under new laws being drafted by the federal government.
- A bill will be released this week and is expected to be presented to parliament next year
- Businesses would be required to create a complaints process for people who believe they have been defamed online
- Laws would allow courts to force companies to hand over user identities if people wanted to sue
The laws would require social media companies to collect details of all users and allow courts to force companies to hand over user identities to help defamation cases.
Social media companies would also be legally responsible for the content they post to users, removing the liability from the individuals and businesses that manage the pages.
The legislation will be released as a draft this week and is expected to be presented to parliament early next year.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said he wants to bridge the gap between real life and online speech.
“The rules that exist in the real world must exist in the digital world and online,” he said.
Under the proposal, social media companies will be required to create a complaints process for people who believe they have been defamed online.
The complaints process will allow people to request that material be removed by a user if they believe it is defamatory.
If the user does not wish to remove the content or if the complainant wishes to take other action, the company asks a user for their consent to disclose their personal data.
If the user does not consent to their contact details being released, a court order may be made requiring the company to release them, allowing the plaintiff to bring a libel action.
Mr Morrison said the government would be happy to step up to court and take on social media companies trying to avoid disclosing personal information.
“So if digital companies or others think they’ll just have to deal with maybe someone of little money looking to pursue this, then we’ll look for those cases.
“We will support them in court and we will confront them.”
Mr Morrison said the establishment of a public defender’s office to deal with such cases was under consideration.
Put a name and face to a troll online
It is not yet entirely clear what kind of data social media companies may be required to collect from users, in order to comply with the new laws.
But the indications are that it would likely include a user’s name, email address, and phone number.
And the rules would apply not only to new users joining a service, but also to existing users.
It would be up to social media companies to determine the actual mechanism for collecting all of this data.
Businesses would not be required to actively monitor online posts and remove potentially libelous ones. They would only have to respond to the complaints filed.
They would not give the details of a person without their consent to the leadership of the Federal Court of Australia, once the court is satisfied that such action is necessary.
When asked if he consulted with social media companies on the proposals, Mr Morrison said he spoke to them regularly – but was happy to proceed without their approval.
“And I will keep going further, until they keep doing the responsible thing.”
Find out who is responsible for what online
A key part of the new rules is clarifying who takes responsibility for content posted online.
A recent High Court case found that the person running a public social media page was responsible for comments made by others on that page, rather than the social media company that runs the platform.
This meant, for example, that if a media outlet posted a news story on Facebook, it was legally responsible for any potentially defamatory comments made by others on that post.
These new laws will push this legal responsibility onto the social media company.
But the laws will also allow businesses to use the complaints system as a defense against libel action. Thus, effectively, companies with a functioning complaints system will be protected from potential defamation cases.
Attorney General Michaelia Cash said social media companies should take responsibility for material posted on their platform.
“Social media services need to scale up and they need to understand that they have a responsibility in this regard,” she said.
“And that is why this milestone brings clarity to all Australians, but especially to social media companies – you will be considered the editor.”
The work challenges the international reach of laws
Federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said Labor would wait until they saw the details of the new laws before taking a firm stand anyway.
But Mr Albanese said it was not unreasonable to suggest that social media companies know the identities of their users.
“It should not exceed the capacity of social media to be able to identify people who are engaging in inappropriate activity online,” he said.
“As if someone [in a public space] says something libelous, inappropriate or hurtful, they are doing it face to face, you can identify them.
“People should not be able to hide behind anonymous Twitter accounts online and engage in inappropriate activities.”
But he wonders how easily the laws could be avoided, as the trolls simply close their Australian account and use a foreign IP address to reopen it.
This would potentially avoid the scope of the laws, if they only apply to accounts registered in Australia.
“Because the government has to explain how it can deal with the fact that national controls have limits for what is a global industry. “
Twitter and Facebook have yet to comment on the proposals.