This article is also published by the EFA.
In an exciting move forward, digital rights organisation Electronic Frontiers Australia has elected it’s first ever female leadership. Lyndsey Jackson and long time EFA member Katherine Phelps take their positions as chair and vice-chair respectively as the organisation moves forward to address the challenges that affect Australians online.
Having recently joined the EFA Policy Team, my first effort has been to suggest the organisation take a more proactive position one of the issues that affect the way many people experience digital life: online abuse and digital stalking. The result is the establishment of a new working group for online abuse.
A Pew Research Centre Survey published this year found that around 4 in 10 Americans had experienced online harassment but this experience varies by age and gender and research by Australia’s eSafety Commissioner found that 1 in 5 of 16-50 year olds have experienced image based abuse. While men are more likely to be harassed online, women are most likely to experience sexual harassment with over half of young women surveyed receiving unwanted explicit photos. Political views, gender and race are the top reasons why people say they are harassed. Women are overwhelmingly the victims of image based abuse, popularly called revenge-porn and minority groups are disproportionately the victims of online hate.
Concerned with the erosion of civil behaviour online, Australians Belinda Kheir and Kathie Melocco established a grassroots movement, The Respect Campaign to help victims facing the devastating impacts of online abuse and ran the world’s first virtual summit focusing on cyber abuse as a workplace health and safety issue.
For their part, the government has put together the Online Safety on the Edge conference providing workshops to community groups and researchers alike as well as introducing laws and an education and online reporting platform to help women address the non-consensual sharing of images, stalking and other problems relating to our use of technology. But what is cyber abuse?
When Monica Lewinsky famously stated ‘Millions of people can stab you with their words‘ she was giving voice to the way in which technology is used to amplify abuse which may begin with a sole perpetrator but end up in permanent crowdsourced pile-ons of the kind that expose the very worst humanity has to offer.
Emma Jane became an expert in online abuse after being one of its earliest victims as a media professional. Dr Jane now researches online abuse at UNSW, producing work like the Online Rape Threat Generator that confronts the staid academic world with the gory realities of what her team calls ‘rape-glish’.
Online abuse or cyberbullying ranges across a spectrum from offensive online comments to impersonation, defamation and up to sextortion, doxing, SWATTing (below) or death threats. Cyber abuse is something that can affect victims in both their personal and professional lives. For those experiencing an unsafe family relationship, digital stalking, online shaming, defamation is being used make people suffer fear, anxiety and shame or even extort money from victims.
The kinds of public shaming used as a weapon by offenders also impacts people’s public and professional life. Women can be targeted by organised online trolling and automated abuse by complete strangers for their political views. Media professionals such as Ginger Gorman, Tara Moss are playing an active role in describing the abuse women face, often in their working lives and raising the issue of the responsibility of employers in protecting employees.
Recently, HSC students were outed for perpetrating online abuse against writers whose texts had been selected for use in exams, demonstrating just how prevalent is the culture of using the internet for harassment and abuse.
— Ginger Gorman 🌈 (@GingerGorman) October 16, 2017
In a world where the public sphere is being increasingly mediated by powerful multi-nationals who are unwilling or unable to remove most of the abusive content posted to their platforms, our everyday life has become inextricably dominated by their standards and culture. As the internet and social media become part of the roles we perform as volunteers or professionals, the issue moves from a problem of the individual to a workplace health and safety issue.
Employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe workplace. According to the recent Cyber Health Summit, cyber bullying can and does result in workplace injury and is subject to WorkCover claims. Experts say taking a wait and see approach to cyber safety in the workplace is an expensive option as risk analysis shows that it is cheaper for workplaces to take pre-emptive measures to avoid and respond properly to abuse. Workplaces need a social media governance framework which provide policies for social media use including a disaster management plan. You can engage experts to help you prepare your workplace for the digital age.
A veteran with 30 years in Victoria Police and now specialising in online abuse, Susan Mclean says any comments received or generated via social media by employees that are discriminatory are a criminal offence. The inclusion of disclaimers on personal media profiles of the ‘opinions are my own’ type hold no legal weight she says. McLean also admits that while people need to report cyber abuse, that the quality of response is akin to a ‘postcode lottery’ in that awareness of cyber abuse issues among police is inconsistent.
Criminal law varies by jurisdiction in how they define and respond to technology-enabled abuse but stalking (which is now often carried out via technological means) is outlawed in all Australian jurisdictions. Image-based abuse can be actioned under various state and federal laws summarised in this article by Terry Goldsworthy.
Cyber abuse is not a niche issue. Whether you are a law enforcement officer, parent, teacher or student, employer, employee or volunteer, online abuse can become an issue for you as a potential victim or offender and probably will at some point in your life.
As individuals we need to keep abreast of new laws and for those of us with organisational affiliations, we need to begin to set the tone that online abuse is not free speech. A positive step forward would be for digital rights organisations to use their position as leaders in policy to take a clear stance that online abuse is just not cricket.