With a constant stream of emerging digital tech, protecting the safety of Australians online is a mounting challenge. In our latest Leaders of Tech interview, we speak to eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant who shared her insights on how the regulator is tackling these hurdles, including the importance of a proactive and systemic approach.
1. You were appointed as the Australian eSafety Commissioner in 2017. What is the role of eSafety when it comes to keeping Australians safe and how has that changed over time?
As the world’s first independent national online safety regulator, we have almost 8 years’ experience in addressing online harms and regulating digital platforms. Our role is to prevent online harms, protect Australians and drive proactive change across the tech industry through effective regulation and global leadership.
We started out in 2015 as the Children’s eSafety Commissioner but we’re now at the forefront of the fight against online risks and harms faced by adults, as well as children. We recognise that online safety needs to be instilled and championed from cradle to grave, given the online world is generating both incredible opportunities and new types of harms almost every second of the day – with some groups at more heightened risk than others.
Internationally, we’re also seeing a big swing towards valuing and prioritising online safety, which is fantastic because the internet is global. We’re no longer the world’s only dedicated regulator. We’re joined by counterparts in Fiji, the UK and now Ireland – we are all founding members of a new global regulators network to counter online harm, which we expect to grow in numbers.
2. What are three key things Australians can do to connect safely and protect themselves online?
We want all Australians to know that they can come to eSafety.gov.au for online safety advice and to report harmful online content, so we can get it taken down quickly.
To help people be mindful of online safety, we’re promoting three key steps: Connect, Reflect and Protect.
- Connect safely by keeping apps and devices secure and regularly review your privacy settings.
- Reflect on how your actions may affect others or jeopardise your own safety.
- Finally, protect yourself and loved ones by visiting eSafety.gov.au for the latest advice on how to stay safe online.
3. The Online Safety Act 2021 (Cth) came into effect in 2022. Why was it important that this legislation was put in place?
The Online Safety Act strengthens our ability to take down seriously harmful content and requires greater transparency and accountability from online platforms. Under the Act, we now have the world’s first adult cyber abuse scheme, allowing us to investigate reports of severely abusive online content targeting an Australian adult. In the first year of operation, we investigated over 2,400 complaints and made 450 informal requests for abusive content to be removed.
We can now order online service providers to remove cyberbullying material not just from social media sites, but from online services where a lot of children spend their time – such as online game chats, websites, and direct messaging platforms. Last financial year, our requests to remove serious cyberbullying material were successful in 88 per cent of cases.
We also have enhanced powers to address image-based abuse. eSafety can require online service providers to rapidly remove a person’s intimate images which have been circulated without their consent. Last financial year, we handled more than 4,000 reports, the majority relating to sexual extortion: a type of blackmail that principally targets young men and is mainly operated by offshore organised crime.
4. Technology is evolving rapidly and, according to auDA research, Australians are cautiously optimistic about emerging internet technologies but hold concerns about cyber security and data privacy. As the eSafety Commissioner, how are you and your team working with the technology sector to address challenges associated with emerging technologies?
The burden of responsibility for online safety should not solely rest on the shoulders of the individual. We want industry to take a proactive, systemic approach to safety. Safety needs to be embedded throughout the lifecycle of product design, development and deployment – what we call ‘Safety By Design’ – and we believe it is the best way to protect users from harm now and in the future.
To help us hold industry to account, we routinely investigate and anticipate tech trends and emerging challenges. We recently published a recommender systems and algorithms position paper that calls on companies to take a more proactive ‘Safety By Design’ approach to these systems, including making sure the content being served to children is age appropriate. Our Mind The Gap research showed almost two-thirds of young people aged 14 to 17 have been exposed to seriously harmful content relating to drug taking, suicide, self-harm, or violence.
5. eSafety was originally established to protect children online but over time its remit has expanded. Can you tell us about other cohorts of Australians eSafety works to protect and why?
eSafety is an important safety net for Australians experiencing serious online abuse. However, we know that some individuals and communities are more at risk of serious online harm. For example, LGBTQI+ and First Nations people experience online hate speech at double the national average (32% compared with 14%), and First Nations people are four times more likely to had intimate photos or videos of them shared electronically or online without their consent.
To protect diverse voices and perspectives online, we have a range of tailored resources and programs. This includes resources for women on tech-based abuse and free social media self-defence classes. We have online safety support and advice for LGBTIQ Australians. Easy-to-read resources for people with low literacy and community resources in a range of languages. We also recently launched new resources for First Nations people to support their online safety.
6. What are eSafety’s top priorities for the coming year?
We’re always focused on how to support the diverse online needs of almost 26 million Australians. The internet is integral to our civic participation and learning, as well as our cultural and working lives – and we don’t want people to be left behind. The job is enormous, possibly infinite, but our education and prevention team does an extraordinary job of empowering Australians of all ages and backgrounds to stay safe online, as well as promoting our reporting schemes when things do go wrong online.
From a regulatory perspective, we’re continuing to hold industry to account over the volume of child abuse material on their platforms. It’s horrifying that children are being coerced and manipulated into creating this material in their bedroom or bathroom on these super computers we call smart phones. Our recent world-first transparency report revealed that some of the globe’s biggest technology companies don’t know the extent to which their platforms are being co-opted by predators to sell, trade and access this horrific material.
We’re also continuing to work with industry regarding the development of industry codes covering eight sections of the online industry to regulate the availability of class 1 material, including child sexual abuse material online. If a code does not provide appropriate community safeguards, I am able to determine an industry standard.
While industry should be doing more to tackle this, we strongly encourage parents to regularly refer to our online safety advice to help protect their children from their very first swipe of a smart device.
For online safety advice, visit eSafety.gov.au.
The views expressed are the interviewee’s own.