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Australians now have additional protections online with the commencement of the new Online Safety Act, which now holds social media companies accountable to remove abusive material.

Passed in June 2021, the Online Safety Act obliges media platforms and other websites to remove “abusive or bullying” content within 24 hours, or face fines of up to $111,000 for individuals and up to $555,000 for companies.

The Act gives new investigative and information gathering powers to eSafety to protect adults and children against serious harm online.

“The Online Safety Act…makes Australia’s existing laws for online safety more expansive and much stronger,” eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant said.

“These new laws… place Australia at the international forefront in the fight against online abuse and harm – providing additional protections for Australians in the fight against online harms through our approach of prevention, protection, and proactive change in the online space.”

eSafety’s existing Cyberbullying Scheme will also be modified so the Commissioner can order the removal of material from online services where many children spend time, including online game chats, websites and direct messaging platforms.

To reach the threshold of abuse, content must be “intended to cause serious harm” and “menacing, harassing or offensive in all the circumstance”. Serious harm could include material which sets out realistic threats, places people in real danger, is excessively malicious or is unrelenting.

It comes amid tense debate about the Federal Government’s anti-trolling bill, with the Law Council of Australia rejecting its merit.

The Federal Government announced in November they would amend the defamation laws to make it easier for people to “unmask anonymous online commentators” as the first step to suing them. Under the draft bill, social media platforms can be fined and potentially held liable for the defamatory comments made by third parties.

In its submission to the Exposure Draft, the Law Council of Australia said the bill, despite its title, focuses more on defamation than addressing trolling directly.

“[The bill] is not likely to achieve the outcomes it seeks and we think there are better alternatives already being investigated,” Law Council of Australia President, Tass Liveris said.

“For many reasons, defamation law is likely to be a relatively ineffective mechanism for seeking individual reputational redress and for reducing trolling activity on social media. In practice, the Draft Bill will have very little impact in improving this situation.”