Cyberbullying is a serious problem. It can cause severe harm to both victims
and perpetrators, as well as their families, friends, and communities. It is
critical that Australian governments, social media platforms, and broader
society take action to reduce its incidence and the harm it causes.
The evidence gathered during this inquiry demonstrates that
cyberbullying is extremely complex. There are myriad causes, and the
consequences can vary greatly depending on context and the individuals
concerned. Cyberbullying occurs in many guises, and there are major differences
between cyberbullying by children and cyberbullying by adults.
A clear and agreed definition of cyberbullying, which acknowledges its
complexity, would support effective policymaking. It would also make the issue
clearer for the community, which is an important step in reducing the incidence
of cyberbullying behaviours.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government consult state
and territory governments, non‑government organisations, and other
relevant stakeholders, to develop and publicise a clear definition of
cyberbullying that recognises the breadth and complexity of the issue.
The committee agrees with the weight of evidence that both bullying and cyberbullying
are, at their roots, social and public health issues. Government measures to
reduce cyberbullying should emphasise prevention and education. They should recognise
that the causes of cyberbullying are linked to broader societal issues,
including schoolyard bullying and sexism. They should also appreciate that some
groups experience a disproportionate amount of cyberbullying.
The committee heard encouraging evidence about education initiatives,
especially for young people, delivered both by government and non‑government
organisations. However, it appears that not all children, and perhaps many
adults, are not properly exposed to these initiatives. The continued prevalence
of cyberbullying indicates that further work is required.
The committee recommends that Australian governments approach
cyberbullying primarily as a social and public health issue. With this in mind,
the committee recommends that Australian governments consider how they can
further improve the quality and reach of preventative and early intervention
measures, including education initiatives, both by government and non‑government
organisations, to reduce the incidence of cyberbullying among children and
The committee agrees that criminal offences should only be applied in
the most serious cyberbullying cases. In general, other avenues to address the
problem should be exhausted before criminal action is taken, particularly where
the perpetrator is a child. The committee also acknowledges that criminal charges
can only be applied after the damage has been done.
The committee accepts evidence that existing Commonwealth, state, and
territory criminal offences adequately cover serious cyberbullying behaviours.
In particular, section 474.17 of the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Criminal
Code) is a broadly framed, technologically‑neutral offence.
Nonetheless, the committee is concerned by evidence implying that some cases
of serious and possibly criminal cyberbullying have not been pursued in the
courts. This may be due to a lack of awareness of the offences among the
public. It may also be due to a lack of understanding of, or willingness to
apply, these provisions by law enforcement authorities. It appears that there
may be particular difficulties with how police currently investigate
cyberbullying cases in which the perpetrator is anonymous, or in which multiple
victims or perpetrators reside in different states or territories. The cases
relayed by the National Council of Single Mothers and their Children (at
paragraphs 3.43 to 3.44) were especially concerning.
The committee notes that law enforcement authorities currently do not
employ adequate and consistent training across and within jurisdictions and
that there is an urgent need to raise understanding and awareness of how
existing criminal offences can be applied to cyberbullying behaviours. Further,
it appears that the current problems may be compounded by differences between
the relevant laws of states, territories, and the Commonwealth.
The committee recommends that the Senate not legislate to increase
penalties for cyberbullying offences committed by minors beyond the provisions
already in place.
Noting the serious harms that cyberbullying can cause, the committee
recommends that Australian governments ensure that:
the general public has a clear awareness and understanding of how
existing criminal offences can be applied to cyberbullying behaviours;
law enforcement authorities appropriately investigate and
prosecute serious cyberbullying complaints under either state or Commonwealth
legislation, coordinate their investigations across jurisdictions where
appropriate, and make the process clear for victims of cyberbullying, and
consistency exists between state, territory and federal laws in
relation to cyberbullying.
The maximum penalties for cyberbullying should recognise the serious
harm that cyberbullying can cause. This includes high levels of distress and
mental health problems, and there may also be some degree of link between
cyberbullying and suicide. The committee takes the view that the current
maximum penalty under section 474.17 of the Criminal Code may not adequately
recognise these harms, and is conscious that similar but more serious offences
in the Criminal Code have maximum penalties of seven or ten years' imprisonment.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government consider
increasing the maximum penalty for using a carriage service to menace, harass,
or cause offence under section 474.17 of the Criminal Code Act 1995
from three years' imprisonment to five years' imprisonment.
The Office of the eSafety Commissioner
The committee strongly supports the role of the Office of the eSafety
Commissioner, including the cyberbullying complaints scheme. The committee is
conscious that the eSafety Office manages a very high number of cyberbullying
complaints, and the total volume appears to be increasing. The team responsible
for addressing these complaints comprises just four staff members. It is
critical that the Australian Government provide adequate resources for the
Office of the eSafety Commissioner to fulfil all its functions.
It is also important that the general public be aware of the eSafety
Commissioner's work, and that victims of cyberbullying can make complaints to
the Commissioner in certain circumstances. Cyberbullying remains common, and it
is plausible that the large number of complaints received by the eSafety
Commissioner each year does not include all meritorious cases.
Further, the committee considers it important that the Australian
Government continually evaluate whether amendments to the eSafety
Commissioner's functions and procedures, including the cyberbullying complaints
scheme, would be beneficial.
The committee accepts evidence from the eSafety Office that the
definitions of 'social media service' and 'relevant electronic service' under
the Enhancing Online Safety Act 2015 may not adequately capture all
platforms on which cyberbullying occurs. Additionally, consideration should be
given to increasing the basic online safety requirements for social media
services under the Act. Consideration should also be given to improving the
ability of the eSafety Office to work with the Australian Federal Police to
access social media account data, and other relevant data, to improve its
ability to apply the end user notice scheme.
The committee notes with interest the Law Council of Australia's recommendations
(at paragraph 4.14) to amend technical elements of the cyberbullying complaints
scheme. The committee also notes that the complaints scheme is currently
limited to cyberbullying material targeting an Australian child, and agrees
with evidence that it may be appropriate to expand the scope. This expansion
could encompass vulnerable adults or all adults, but would require more
resources to be allocated to the eSafety Office.
Additionally, the committee sees potential merit in requiring social
media platforms to name and authorise a person to receive legal service in
Australia, similar to the provisions of the Network Enforcement Act in Germany.
The committee notes that the Enhancing Online Safety Act 2015 currently
requires Tier 1 services to name an employee as contact person for the purposes
of that Act, which is a lesser requirement and does not apply to all social
The committee recommends that the Australian Government:
ensure that the Office of the eSafety Commissioner is adequately
resourced to fulfil all its functions, taking into account the volume of complaints
promote to the public the role of the Office of the eSafety
Commissioner, including the cyberbullying complaints scheme;
consider improvements to the process by which the Office of the
eSafety Commissioner can access relevant data from social media services hosted
overseas, including account data, that would assist the eSafety Office to apply
the end‑user notice scheme, and
consider whether amendments to the Enhancing Online Safety Act
2015 relating to the eSafety Commissioner and the cyberbullying complaints
scheme would be beneficial, and in particular, consider:
expanding the cyberbullying complaints scheme to include complaints
expanding the application of the tier scheme by amending the
definitions of 'social media service' and 'relevant electronic service', and
increasing the basic online safety requirements for social media
Social media platforms
The committee acknowledges that the services provided by social media
platforms are very often beneficial for individuals and society. However, these
platforms are also a primary vehicle for serious cyberbullying.
The committee notes that civil penalties for social media platforms are
already in place, but the eSafety Commissioner has not yet considered it
necessary to apply them. This is partly due to cooperation from social media
platforms. Given this, the committee does not think it is currently necessary
to increase the maximum civil penalty that the eSafety Commissioner could apply.
However, the committee remains deeply concerned about the continued
prevalence of cyberbullying on social media platforms. It is conscious that
businesses are motivated by financial considerations, and sees merit in the
proposal from Maurice Blackburn Lawyers (at paragraphs 4.18 to 4.19) to impose
a statutory duty of care on social media platforms to ensure the safety of
their users. It also encourages the Australian Government to closely monitor
the recently introduced Network Enforcement Law in Germany, and apply useful
lessons from Germany in Australia.
Social media platforms should play a major role in reducing
cyberbullying. The eSafety Commissioner's cyberbullying complaints scheme is a
safety net and its existence does not reduce the responsibilities of Facebook,
Google, Twitter and their ilk. The committee is deeply concerned about cases in
which social media platforms appeared to respond inadequately to complaints,
and wishes to make it clear that it is up to social media platforms to make
their platforms safe environments, reduce the incidence of cyberbullying, and
promptly take down or otherwise manage all offending material. The committee
considers 'safety by design' a useful principle here.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government place and
maintain regulatory pressure on social media platforms to both prevent and quickly
respond to cyberbullying material on their platforms, including through the use
of significant financial penalties where insufficient progress is achieved.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government legislate to
create a duty of care on social media platforms to ensure the safety of their
The committee heard evidence regarding social media platforms' data,
including data on user complaints, broken down by the type of complaint and the
nature of the platform's response. The committee notes that the Network
Enforcement Law in Germany contains certain reporting requirements. Notwithstanding
the assurances of social media platforms, the committee considers that the
mandatory publication of this data would provide considerable motivation for
the platforms to address cyberbullying. This data would also aid society's
understanding of the nature and scale of cyberbullying, although the committee
acknowledges that user‑generated data may have some limitations.
Given the Office of the eSafety Commissioner's role and expertise, it
may be appropriate for the eSafety Commissioner to define what data must be
published, and the format in which it must be presented.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government consider
requiring social media platforms to publish relevant data, including data on
user complaints and the platforms' responses, as specified by the eSafety
Commissioner and in a format specified by the eSafety Commissioner.
Senator Louise Pratt
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