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Erin Molan and Nyadol Nyuon tell inquiry defamation bill not ‘useful’ for most online trolling victims

The Guardian
The Guardian
 2022-03-10
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Nyadol Nyuon Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

High-profile victims of online trolling, including Erin Molan and Nyadol Nyuon, have said an “anti-trolling” bill that overhauls defamation law for online comments will be “almost impossible” to uptake and not “useful” to most people in Australia due to the cost and effort involved.

The bill will make the owners of social media pages and groups not liable for user comments on those groups or pages, and would shift the liability burden to social media platforms if they do not attempt to facilitate the unmasking of anonymous commenters for someone seeking to bring defamation proceedings.

The majority of those who have made submissions about the bill have said the bill is incorrectly titled, because it does not target trolling. However, the media personality Erin Molan, the former Broncos NRL coach Anthony Seibold , and the prominent African Australian lawyer and chair of Harmony Alliance, Nyadol Nyuon, were called before the inquiry to give evidence about the trolling they had endured online.

Related: Who will be protected by the government’s anti-trolling law?

When the Labor senator Kim Carr asked each of them whether they would pursue defamation action under the bill, they all said it was not something they would consider.

Molan, who told the committee she walked away from covering rugby league due to the abuse she copped online since she was on The Footy Show, said it is incredibly difficult to launch defamation proceedings.

“I went through a defamation trial last year … against a member of the mainstream media and it’s an experience you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy,” Molan said, referencing her high-profile case against the Daily Mail over allegations she is racist.

“I earn an above-average salary absolutely, and it is crippling, the cost of it … My experience and my belief would be that for 99.9% of Australians it would be absolutely impossible to afford when the cost of living is already hard enough, for people to get a lawyer and take action.”

Siebold says he had not considered pursuing defamation action and drawing more attention to his online abuse.

“It would be significant … it’s not something I’ve thought deeply about since the time it happened, which is about 18 months,” he said. “Myself and my family had been through significant pain.”

Nyuon said she endures constant racist abuse online, but the sheer volume of it would make it difficult to pursue any sort of action.

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“I don’t think that the bill would be useful for the majority of migrant women … I am tremendously privileged and advantaged, and I still do not think this bill would benefit me. I receive a lot of online abuse from a lot of anonymous trolls … If I was to dedicate my time to it, it would be unmanageable.”

Nyuon argued more resources should be provided to the eSafety commissioner, which is already empowered to require social media companies to provide basic subscriber information to the commissioner in cases where there is serious online bullying of adults.

The commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, told the inquiry that the bill had created “conflation, confusion, and oversimplification” about where Australians can turn to in order to address issues of online defamation.

Related: Anti-trolling bill about ‘defamation only’, Michaelia Cash’s department says

Since the adult cyber abuse scheme came into effect at the end of January, the eSafety commissioner’s office has received 500 complaints, one-third of which Inman Grant said were more defamation complaints than cyberbullying. She said those people had no place to turn, and her office did not have the resources to deal with the “absolute flood” of defamation complaints.

“Conflating defamation with trolling is comparing apples with oranges. Not only does this catch-all term trolling trivialise seriously harmful forms of online abuse, you can troll someone endlessly without defaming them,” she said.

“You could change the name of the bill and it would deal with a lot of confusion and conflation.”

Inman Grant has not used any of the takedown notice or subscriber information request powers under the Online Safety Act in the two months since it came into effect, and said the government should give the law time to work.

Carr pointed out that although some government senators on the committee had argued online defamation required “urgent” legislative action, the bill is unlikely to pass before the election, with just three sitting days expected before the election is called.

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