Originally published in The Guardian on December 2, 2021

The Coalition proposals would significantly shift the way these global advertising monopolies operate.

It’s easy to be cynical about the Morrison government’s new anti-trolling laws but, despite much hype and hyperbole, any attempt to increase accountability of the big social media corporations deserves serious analysis.

Under the proposal, social media companies would be forced to identify users who are engaged in so-called trolling subject to defamation claims; with the platform itself liable if it can’t – or won’t – identify the user.

Should they become law, these would be significant shifts in the way these global advertising monopolies operate, repudiating the fiction they are merely neutral “platforms” allowing the free exchange of information.

This has been an article of faith since the inception of the internet, that internet providers were no more liable for the content they transmitted than a telephone company was for the words that travelled down a line.

Today the reality is they are much more than a neutral space – they are commercial networks designed to maximise user engagement so as to collect and repackage the data their online activity generates to target advertisements back at them.

Rather than being benign conduits, the information that appears in a user’s feed is determined by an algorithm specifically designed to exploit the user – first as a producer of behavioural data and second as a product sold to advertisers based on that information.

As revelations from the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen have shown, these companies turn a blind eye to the knowledge that these algorithms deliver the highest returns when they put feelings ahead of facts and when they excite extreme emotions like anger.

In this context trolls are not just individual bad actors let loose on the web, they are the natural result of this business operating model. Interrupting this unhealthy relationship would be a step forward.

Why is the Morrison government pushing hard on platform regulation? It would be wrong to think it has an over-arching reformist zeal for improving the quality of democracy, particularly as it slow-walks its pledge to create a corruption watchdog.

Like the news media bargaining code before it, this is a piece of legislation that stumbles into the public interest in addressing the needs of a powerful sectional interest: traditional media companies.

In September the high court sent conniptions through the media boardrooms by holding a group of media companies liable for a defamation claim by an Aboriginal youth, Dylan Voller, over trolling comments posted on Facebook in response to stories they had published.

The consequence of this decision left media companies exposed to legal risk at the exact moment they had struck content deals with Google and Facebook requiring more of their content to be posted on platforms.

Critics of the changes point to the importance of anonymity online for those who are less powerful or constrained from taking part in public debate: whistleblowers, dissidents, women in abusive relationships, public servants and other workers constrained by employment contracts in having a social media life.

These are valid points but they are not absolutes. The damage from the orchestrated use of anonymous accounts can be profound. Platform accountability is now zero. Requiring user traceability via an email address or mobile phone, subject to protections on the security of that information, does not seem to be a stretch from the current user registration requirements.

If an anonymous user were piling on to an individual in ways that would not be acceptable in the real world, the platform should step in – or face the legal consequences of the damage that activity had caused.

This is transformative because we know that these platforms do not just tolerate but actively benefit from fake accounts that grow network effects, creating new hubs of that valuable user engagement that is so easy to sell off to other eyeballs in real-time algorithmic auctions of attention.

We also know from an earlier Facebook whistleblower, Sophie Zhang, that the company turned a blind eye to the use of fake accounts as organising tools for spreading disinformation to support anti-democratic governments from India to Ukraine to Ecuador.

So maybe this legislation is a radical intervention into the operating model of these platforms. If this is indeed the case, more power to the PM’s legislative pen.

But before we celebrate the government as a gold medal platform-buster it is worth reflecting on the work that hasn’t been done over the past 12 months.

Key elements of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission digital platform inquiry that spawned the news media bargaining code are sitting in the legislative limbo land between recommendation and action. What was presented as comprehensive platform reform from the ACCC is being approached in a piecemeal manner, with key initiatives in consumer privacy, disinformation, digital literacy and consumer choice lacking the urgency of the trolling announce-able.

So too is the groundbreaking work from the former human rights commissioner Ed Santow, whose call for a moratorium on facial recognition technology has still not made it to the attorney general’s desk.

We also need to recognise regardless of how we regulate, social media companies will always be pushing up against the public interest so long as their business model is based on the extraction and monetisation of users’ behavioural data.

So while a crackdown on anonymous trolls may be a welcome coincidence where power and public interest align, the real visionary work of government in supporting alternate platforms to manage our digital connections remains.

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