On 1 January 2018, the Network Enforcement Act came into effect in Germany. Under the laws, online platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter face fines of up to $50 million euros if they do not remove “obviously illegal” hate speech within 24 hours of notification. The laws had an immediate effect, prompting Facebook to hire 1200 additional staff to monitor its website in Germany.
Just days later, Amy Jayne Everett, a 14-year-old Australian girl, committed suicide after enduring protracted cyber-bullying. Her death spawned an outpouring of grief and with a grim irony, a social media campaign, #doitfordolly . In 2011, following the tragic death of a young hospitality worker, Brodie Panlock, a campaign for stronger laws against workplace bullying prompted the Victorian state government to act. Brodie’s law, as it is now called, is one of the weapons deployed against workplace bullies. Regulating workplaces is one thing; the internet is quite another. To date, there has been no suggestion of legislative reform in the wake of the death of Amy Jayne Everett.
Big Tech monopolies have enormous financial muscle and political clout. Google was founded in 1998 and now enjoys 88 per cent of the online advertising market. Facebook is even younger, emerging in 2004. It now owns 77 per cent of mobile social traffic.
Their near monopoly control is prompting growing calls for legislators to break them up, just as natural monopolies like telephone company and utilities have been treated in the past. In an effort to thwart legislative intervention, the Silicon Valley
giants are spending vast sums on political lobbying and swamping Washington with lobbyists.
Their platforms resemble the wild west but with more carnage. They don’t just distort markets, harvest our personal data, disseminate fake news and damage political systems; like guns, they can be used to kill and injure. Literally, as the death of Amy Jane Everett shows. Cyber-hate, cyber-bullying and the use of online platforms to further terrorism all contribute to a global death and injury toll.
While Australian politics has regressed into examining the sex lives of its politicians and slut-shaming, Europe is leading the charge in moving to regulate the internet monopolies that dominate our lives. To date, the German laws are the high point of internet regulation. In the US, both conservatives and liberals are now arguing for legal intervention. In 2015, New Zealand created a suite of criminal penalties and civil remedies to address cyber violence.
Making cyberspace safe shouldn’t be that hard. All that is needed is to provide companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter with a strong financial incentive to clean up their platforms.
The vastness of cyberspace means that no single regulator can hope to make it safe by reigning in its worst excesses. Even criminal acts in cyberspace are rarely prosecuted.
Any effective regulatory response must ensure that individuals who are harmed or threatened with harm are empowered to act quickly to seek a legal remedy including compensation and injuctions against the online platforms. Give victims of cyber-hate the legal tools to sue Google, Facebook, Twitter and others and the effect would be dramatic. Big Tech companies would be compelled to commit serious resources to cleaning up their platforms.
Any new laws would need to impose a duty of care on the big tech companies. They could be sued, along with the perpetrator of cyberhate, where they did not take reasonable care to protect the individual target.
Before the Wright brothers took flight, there were next to no laws about what could or could not be done in aerospace. Today there are thousands of laws related to aviation, changed all the time as technology changes and advances, varying from state to state and country to country. If Australian politicians are going to strive for community safety, they must overcome their timidity in regulating cyberspace.
This article originally appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.