Research shows harm caused by cyber hate and harassment, prompting urgent call for law reform

28 January 2019
Newly published polling on the economic costs and destructive impacts of online harassment and cyber hate has again reinforced the urgent need for overdue legal reforms to keep online users safe, according to Maurice Blackburn Lawyers.

Maurice Blackburn Principal Josh Bornstein said the polling undertaken by The Australia Institute and commissioned by journalist Ginger Gorman had demonstrated that many Australians were being harmed by online harassment and cyber hate, often at a significant financial and personal cost.

“This research found that more than a third of respondents had experienced one or more forms of online harassment, with harassment more likely to have been experienced by women and people in younger age groups,” Mr Bornstein said.

“It also found that eight per cent of respondents had experienced cyber hate. 28 per cent of respondents who indicated negative impacts on their wellbeing from harassment or reporting cyber hate also advised that what they had experienced caused them to see a doctor, psychologist or other health professional.

“A number of respondents also said that cyber hate or online harassment had affected their ability to work, with 58 per cent of those who had sought health care assistance advising it had come with a financial cost to them. The research estimates that the cost of cyberbullying to the Australian community could be as high as $3.7 billion.

“These findings align with the experience of a number of our own clients who we have assisted with cyber bullying complaints in schools and in the workplace, with many suffering significant losses through illness, associated medical costs and lost income because of harm caused online.

“Australia has long lagged behind other countries when it comes to regulating the internet to ensure cyber safety.

“Companies like Facebook and Twitter should be required to provide safe online platforms just as employers are legally required to provide safe workplaces. Cyber safety should be regulated in the same way that workplace safety is - by imposing a duty of care on the major technology companies through robust legislation.

“It is well past time for the Federal Government to act, noting also that the Sensis social media report found that almost eight in 10 Australians now use social media.

“Disappointingly however the Federal Government continues to drag its heels on reform in this area, including failing to act on a Senate Committee report from last March that made a series of important recommendations to improve cyber safety.

“We call on the Federal Government to act urgently to implement the Committee’s recommendations, including legislating to create a duty of care on social media platforms to ensure the safety of users.

“Social media platforms must be held to account for harm caused online and victims must have the tools to take them on when harm occurs. Legislative reform will compel companies like Facebook and Twitter to commit proper resources to clean up their platforms.

“We also continue to support the recommendations made by the Senate Committee to place and maintain regulatory pressure on social media platforms to prevent and quickly respond to cyber bullying, including using financial penalties if needed to force companies to clean up their act,” he said.

Read the Australia Institute’s research, commissioned as part of journalist Ginger Gorman’s book ‘Troll Hunting’.

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