Australia Proposes New Law to Force Online Platforms to Out Internet Trolls

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Australia is trying to make it harder to be an internet troll, but at what cost?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced plans to introduce legislation that, in certain cases, would force social media companies to hand over the personal information of users who post defamatory comments, Reuters reports. While I’m all for cracking down on trolls and eliminating hate speech from online platforms, this sounds like a privacy nightmare waiting to happen.

Here’s how it would work: If someone suspects they are being defamed, bullied, or attacked on online platforms, a newly established complaint mechanism would require these platforms to take the offending posts down. If a site refuses to remove the material, the court system could order them to fork over details about the user behind the posts.

“The online world shouldn’t be 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,” Morrison said during a televised press conference on Sunday. “That’s not Australia. That’s not what can happen in the real world, and there’s no case for it to be able to be happening in the digital world.”

The proposed legislation comes in the wake of a ruling from the country’s High Court in September that news publishers can be held liable for the comments readers post on their social media pages. Due to these liability concerns, CNN has since shut down its Facebook page in Australia. 

More so than penalizing social media companies that fail to sufficiently moderate their platforms, Morrison wants to take the fight to the trolls themselves. And if online platforms refuse to play ball, he seems more than ready to get the courts to compel them to do so.

“These online companies must have proper processes to enable the takedown of this content,” he said Sunday. “There needs to be an easy and quick and fast way for people to raise these issues with these platforms and get it taken down. They have that responsibility. They’ve created this space and they need to make it safe. And if they won’t, we will make them with laws such as this…”

Of course, that also raises a slew of privacy questions. Anonymity on the internet shields trolls, sure, but by that same token, it protects the identity of vulnerable populations or those that would challenge authority. An online identity disclosure law like this could easily be abused in the wrong hands, and without drafted legislation or examples to point at this time, it’s difficult to even get a sense of how vile someone’s posts have to be before Australia’s government can step in and force platforms to reveal their identity.

ABC News Australia reports that a draft of the legislation is expected to be released this week, and it’s likely to reach the nation’s parliament by early next year.

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