Over the past financial year, the Office of the eSafety Commissioner (eSafety) continued to lead the way in providing support, resources and outreach programs to help Australians have positive and empowering online experiences. I am proud to say that in just four years, we have reached millions of Australians with our information and training and provided relief to thousands of victims of online abuse.
Combating the online abuses eSafety sees every day is one of the most pressing societal challenges of our time. Finding the right policy and regulatory measures to respond to this challenge is made more difficult by rapidly evolving digital technology and the constantly changing nature of the online world. Community expectations about what should be done to address online risks are also changing and this is reflected in eSafety’s expanding responsibilities and organisational growth.
In 2018–19, our investigators dealt with a substantial increase in reports of online abuse, as more Australians became aware of our services and sought support for themselves or someone close to them.
Our world-first cyberbullying complaints scheme continued to provide an invaluable safety net to Australian children affected by serious cyberbullying. We received 531 cyberbullying complaints, an increase of 30 per cent on the previous year. Despite this increase our cyberbullying team worked diligently to help the young people involved and ensure the swift removal of offending content from social media sites.
2018–19 was the second successive year that eSafety provided a reporting service for Australian adults experiencing cyber abuse. We helped 950 complainants, more than double the number assisted over the previous year. While we do not have formal powers to investigate cyber abuse matters for adults, our expert understanding of the issues and strong relationships with stakeholders enabled us to provide advice, assistance and referrals to support services.
This was also the second successive year in which we provided a world-first government-led reporting service for victims of image-based abuse—Australians who have had their intimate images shared, or threatened to be shared, without their consent. There was a significant increase in these reports, with 950 received, resulting in removal of material from over 1,700 locations online. Despite most of this material being hosted overseas, we were successful in having it removed in 90 per cent of cases.
From September 2018, the tools at our disposal to tackle image-based abuse were bolstered by a new civil penalties scheme, which allows us to issue warnings, infringement notices and fines to those who post or threaten to post the material, as well as the online host. This gives us significant new leverage in targeting the perpetrators and enablers of this heinous abuse.
Our investigative division also continued to combat online child sexual abuse material through the work of the Cyber Report team. Now in its twentieth year of operation, Cyber Report responds to reports from the public and law enforcement about prohibited or potentially prohibited online content and works with international partners to get online child sexual abuse material taken down. In 2018–19, the team finalised investigations into over 8,000 individual items of content depicting child sexual abuse.
In the wake of the horrific terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 2019, which was live-streamed via Facebook, eSafety was given new powers to enhance our ability to have abhorrent violent material removed from the internet as rapidly as possible.
In addition, we continued to produce world-leading research into online safety issues. Our findings provided valuable insights for key stakeholders working in this space, while also boosting the evidence base that informs our service and program delivery and targeted communications.
Our Parenting in the digital age report was the centrepiece of our research. We found that almost all Australian parents (94 per cent) regard their child’s online safety as important, with the most common concerns being exposure to inappropriate content, contact with strangers and being bullied online. A similar majority of parents (95 per cent) told us they needed additional online safety information, however only 46 per cent knew where to go to get it.
Improving awareness of eSafety among parents—and the broader Australian community—was the focus of our first national online safety awareness campaign, with advertising running from March to June 2019. The message to ‘start the chat’ empowered audiences to have positive, constructive conversations with the young people in their lives about improving their online safety.
Our outreach program was another important way we delivered online safety messages to a broad range of Australians across various ages and walks of life. In 2018–19, we provided online safety education to over 124,000 students, parents, educators and community workers through virtual classrooms, webinars and face-to-face presentations. And through our eSafetyWomen program, we delivered essential training to more than 3,400 frontline workers, to help them combat the use of technology to stalk, control and harass women experiencing family and domestic violence.
Our Be Connected program continued to attract older Australians looking to improve their digital knowhow and online safety skills, with over 90,000 learning activities completed and over 2.4 million page views during 2018–19.
Millions of Australians enjoy the positive benefits the internet brings to our daily lives. But for many of these users, connecting with the online world can also expose their vulnerability to harm or abuse. This is recognised by eSafety’s hard-working staff, whose wealth of experience and dedication has been central to our success to-date.
The challenges of regulating the internet to make it safer are numerous and ever-changing, but by no means insurmountable. eSafety will always strive to remain a step ahead, leading the way to the more positive online world we all want and deserve.