Let’s stop pretending that the Internet is a harmless virtual fairyland

These are the executives of civil society. Your freedom of expression ends where you hurt me.

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In 2015, renowned lawyer Josh Bornstein was the target of a terrorist troll who is currently imprisoned in the United States. Knowing firsthand the harm online hate can cause, Bornstein has also volunteered for cyberhate targets in Australia. He says the widely held assumption that individuals should be allowed to be anonymous online is “based partly on fantasy, partly on myth, partly on the strategy of a big tech company. Harmful speech has been regulated for centuries.

“Contrary to suggestions elsewhere, [thinkers such as] JS Mill and Voltaire recognized the need to regulate harmful words.″⁣

“Conduct on social media should be regulated like conduct outside of social media. If people engage in illegal behavior online, it should be properly regulated, including when they do so anonymously.

Therefore, whether or not you agree that Avi Yemini was defamed by the person behind @PRGuy17 is irrelevant. Yemini still deserves the ability to seek redress in court if he believes he has been threatened or defamed.

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In June 2018, while I was writing my book, troll hunting, I went to see a disappointingly idealistic speech by American internet pioneer Vint Cerf at the Australian National University in Canberra. However, Cerf said a useful thing about the notion of anonymity.

Cerf explained to the audience that when you drive, your vehicle has a license plate. But you’re essentially anonymous unless you’re harming someone else. And then the authorities can follow you. He called this idea “traceability by design” and championed it for the internet.

Before we go too far, there are situations where anonymity is important. Certain groups – for example, survivors of sexual assault seeking help or those fleeing political persecution in their home country – need to be protected online.

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And currently they are not. Remember that the United Nations implicated Facebook in the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. The harm caused by the social media giants does not end there. Remember how Russian trolls used major social media platforms to swing the 2016 US election in favor of Donald Trump? They were the powerful vehicle used to undermine democracy. And what about the Cambridge Analytica scandal? The data of 87 million Facebook users has been used for malicious purposes.

Platforms harm us every day in multiple ways. They’re not the good guys. Social media companies are monolithic private companies that make billions of dollars from our data and pay almost no corporate taxes.

Bornstein agrees: “Big Tech monopolies are far too powerful. Politicians in the United States and Europe are trying to catch up and introduce proper regulation. In the United States, they strive to break up monopolies by recognizing that they hold excessive power. The state must protect the right to regulate and control these companies.

So if we’re concerned about the Federal Court requiring Twitter to hand over personal information to Avi Yemeni, that brings us to a really tricky question. Do we, as a society, want the social media giants to be the arbiters and holders of the purse strings of free speech and privacy as they continually prove that they have no have the best interests of the community at heart?

Ginger Gorman is a journalist, cyberhate expert and author of Troll hunting. She is the editor of the non-profit media platform BroadAgenda at the University of Canberra.

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