Julie Inman Grant, eSafety commissioner of Australia
The World Economic Forum’s Global Coalition for Digital Safety is bringing together a diverse group of leaders to accelerate public-private cooperation to tackle harmful content and conduct online. On the sidelines of the summit, Julie Inman Grant, eSafety commissioner of Australia, tells Pranjal Sharma that other countries are looking to set up institutions like the Australian one dedicated to protect people from digital harm. Edited excerpts:
Q. How serious is the issue of harm in the digital world?
A. It’s very serious, and also important to realise that harms in the digital world are also real world harms capable of leading to lasting and permanent damage to those who experience them.
While the digital world brings extraordinary benefits and opportunities, it also carries these risks of serious harm at both the individual and societal levels.
eSafety addresses a broad range of harmful activity and content, with our individual complaints schemes focusing on illegal and restricted content such as child sexual exploitation, pro-terror material, non-consensual sharing of intimate images, cyberbullying of children, and cyber abuse of adults.
We also look to empower Australians to have safer experiences online through targeted education programmes and resources. These are underpinned by up-to-date research.
We are trying to reduce harm from happening by working with the technology industry and encouraging them to incorporate safety into the design and development of their products and services.
We examine how emerging tech trends – such as greater uptake of end-to-end encryption (E2EE), interest in a more decentralised web, developments in immersive tech and the metaverse, and increased reliance on recommender systems – can benefit users as well as create new avenues for harm.
Q. What steps has your organisation taken to combat such harm?
A. eSafety has a broad remit that enables us to work across the three pillars of prevention, protection, and proactive and systemic change.
To prevent harm, eSafety conducts research and provides evidence-based online safety resources and programmes.
To protect people who have been harmed online, eSafety provides accessible and trustworthy complaints mechanisms. We provide support for complainants that may involve referrals to law enforcement, mental health providers or legal services or may provide tips and strategies for how to mitigate further harm.
Using what we’ve learned from these individual complaints, eSafety works to achieve more proactive and systemic change.
We develop voluntary guidance material and tools with industry to enable providers of products and services to lift safety capabilities to better protect their customers’ safety and rights through the ‘Safety By Design’ risk assessment tools and resources.
We also have mandatory reporting powers, which enable us to compel greater transparency from service providers to hold them accountable for their users’ safety under the Basic Online Safety Expectations (BOSE). We used these powers for the first time in 2022, generating unique insights into what companies are or aren’t doing to tackle child sexual exploitation and abuse.
Q. Are collaborations taking place between governments? How will this help?
A. International engagement is an increasingly important function of the eSafety commissioner. The internet is global – and almost all our regulated entities are headquartered overseas and subject to the laws of other countries. Similarly, global developments influence the online activities of Australians and shape decisions of online service providers.
To achieve positive outcomes for Australians and provide clear guidance for industry, there is a need for continued engagement with like-minded governments and organisations. This will allow regulators to set and enforce coherent online safety obligations for service providers, and promote meaningful and coordinated responses to online harms and to help prevent regulatory fragmentation. Initiatives like the Global Online Safety Regulators Network were established to do just this.
Q. Emerging economies like India are witnessing the inclusion of hundreds of millions in the digital mainstream. How can they be protected?
A. Research, education and training programmes are foundational for preventing online harms. Citizens of all countries need to be provided with the practical skills and confidence to be safe, resilient and positive users of the online world, and to know where to seek help if issues do arise. Approaches to protecting the public need to be based on evidence and responsive to the needs of each particular community, and progress must be tracked to ensure real impact. We will continue to work with Indian organisations to share online safety resources that can be repurposed and localised. We provide resources in multiple languages, including Hindi, Punjabi, and Tamil.
Q. What role does the private sector have to play?
A. To make an impact, we must work with partners at home and around the world. We collaborate with the private sector through platforms such as the World Economic Forum’s Coalition for Digital Safety to cooperate and share information, insights and expertise.
Through initiatives such as Safety by Design, which we developed with industry, we encourage the technology industry to anticipate, detect and eliminate online risk, as the most effective way to build our digital environments to be safer and more inclusive – from the ground up.
Safety by Design makes good business sense and failure to address safety risks runs regulatory, reputational and revenue risks for businesses. The tech industry, therefore, needs to take a more proactive and innovative approach and invest in safety as a core business interest.
We are hopeful that through India’s leadership of the G20 that Safety by Design, the safety of women and children, and the protection of diverse voices online will continue to be an important theme.
First Published: Thu, January 19 2023. 19:58 IST