Thirty years on, it’s time to fix the Internet

By LAURIE PATTON | 18 March 2019

In the wake of horrendous events in New Zealand high profile Australian politicians are calling on social media outlets to take action against people spreading violent hate speech. They could start by banning anonymous posts.

Marking the World Wide Web’s 30th anniversary last week its creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, warned of the Internet’s unforeseen dysfunction, telling The Australian “there are a lot of people out there who believe in bizarre things, have fallen for atrocious conspiracy theories and are manipulated into scams”. Berners-Lee added, “This is not just about technology, there’s a people problem here as well”.

There are numerous flaws in how the Internet operates that have serious consequences, but one in particular that needs attention. In my opinion it’s time we did something about the ‘keyboard cowards’ who post false and/or defamatory comments on social media – in particular those who do so anonymously.

Seven Network chairman Kerry Stokes has previously called for laws “preventing Facebook and other Internet media companies from publishing defamatory and false allegations with impunity”. Stokes had mounted a four-year-long defamation case against an online blogger and was quoting saying, “Everyone is vulnerable to nefarious material being published about them… It is time for governments to act to protect their citizens, creating similar laws that traditional publishers and broadcasters comply with every day”.

If someone with Stokes’ power and influence can be a victim of online sledging, what chance does anyone else have? It’s hard enough seeking redress when the perpetrator is an identifiable individual. Much more difficult when comments are posted anonymously on someone else’s site.

The Sydney Morning Herald has previously revealed a push for an overhaul of Australia’s defamation laws. The New South Wales Attorney-General Mark Speakman was quoted saying the laws need to be “more tech-savvy”.

This might not make me popular with the purists at Internet Australia, or its global parent the Internet Society. But the fact is, it’s time we cleaned up the Internet. Berners-Lee could not have foreseen the myriad uses to which it would be put, both positive and negative. But surely the clever people who collectively now manage the Internet are capable of fixing its demonstrable problems?

To fail to do so will open the Internet up to criticism that could lead to governments interfering in ways that have been successfully resisted since its inception – opposed on the basis of arguments about free speech and freedom from undue state interference in people’s lives

Last year a certain Australian online IT journal resorted to culling false and defamatory comments on an article that had clearly stirred up the emotions of several keyboard cowards who decided to vent on me and others with whom they disagreed. Earlier in the year, another local online publication had to be forced to delete a reader’s comment in which the spouse of a prominent federal politician was falsely described as a convicted sex offender. At first the organisation tried to argue it wasn’t responsible for comments others posted (anonymously) on its (unmonitored) website.

Winning a defamation case against a traditional print publisher can be a pyrrhic victory if the offending material stays posted and forever readily accessible online to any nut-job or malicious individual dredging it up later for whatever purpose.

As a start, we should question the right of people to post anonymously. What’s also needed is a process that totally and permanently erases false and defamatory material. Having discussed the matter with more technically qualified people I believe that while it would be difficult, this is possible. And it would be better if it came about as an initiative of expert groups like the Internet Society rather than risking overreach by politicians. Recent history provides sufficient warning on that score with the discredited Data Retention Act and pointless Internet site-blocking laws just two examples of legislative overreach.

The strongest argument in favour of online anonymity is that some people feel less inclined to say what they think if others know it’s come from them – especially if they are expressing political opinions. It’s also argued that anonymity lessens the risk of trolling. In the end it is a matter of balance. Right now I reckon the damage done by anonymous sledging is the bigger danger.

And before anyone starts talking about ‘press freedom’ or the right to comment, defamation has never been acceptable and it shouldn’t be allowed over the Internet. Nor should anonymous sledging.

(Laurie Patton was CEO / Executive Director of Internet Australia (a chapter of the global Internet Society) from 2014-2017. IA is the NFP peak body representing the interests of Australian Internet users. This article, since updated, was first posted in June 2018.)