The 2019–20 financial year brought unanticipated challenges for eSafety, just as it did for so many other organisations. The rise in internet usage, as offices and schools emptied in response to COVID-19, along with the emotional, social and economic challenges that accompanied the lockdown, led to an immediate spike across all of eSafety’s reporting areas.
In response, the team at eSafety quickly pivoted to the specific challenges presented by COVID-19, producing customised resources for young people, parents and carers, educators, seniors and women. As the first dedicated online safety regulator in the world, we also recognised our obligation to those experiencing heightened levels of online harm in other nations, and produced our first suite of materials intended for an international audience—specifically, for parents, and for frontline workers supporting women. I anticipate this work will be the precursor to a heightened level of international collaboration and engagement over the coming 12 months.
I will forever be proud of the way my team rose to the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic posed to our mission of keeping Australians safer online. And through all of those challenges, we continued to provide support as usual to thousands of victims of online abuse, while pushing ahead with the research and outreach programs that are so important to preventing online harm. Our world-first cyberbullying complaints scheme continued to provide an invaluable safety net to Australian children affected by serious cyberbullying. And we continued to enjoy an outstanding success rate in having this damaging material removed from social media sites and ending the anguish of these young Australians.
Our reporting service for Australian adults experiencing cyber abuse continued into its third year. While we do not have formal powers to investigate cyber abuse targeting adults, we were able to provide advice, assistance and referrals to support services to over 1,000 Australians. In addition, through partnerships with the AFL and the Australian Human Rights Commission, we were able to spread the message that cyber abuse is not acceptable, either in the sporting sector or directed towards multicultural communities.
This was also the third 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, and sextortion scams continued to be a prominent concern for our team, with a large spike recorded during the COVID-19 lockdown period.
Our investigative division also continued to combat online child sexual abuse material through the work of the Cyber Report team. In November 2019, we marked the milestone of 20 years of fighting online child sexual abuse material through INHOPE—a network of 46 hotlines around the world dedicated to rapidly removing child sexual abuse material from the internet. Cyber Report responds to reports from the public and law enforcement about prohibited online content and works with international partners to get online child sexual abuse material taken down. Here, too, there was a significant increase in workload during the COVID-19 pandemic, as those who produce and circulate this horrendous material online sought to take advantage of unique opportunities. Last year, I was also honoured to join the Board of the WePROTECT Global Alliance to join forces with world leaders committed to fighting this scourge.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 2019, eSafety was given new powers to notify content and hosting services about abhorrent violent material provided on their services. In September 2019, I directed internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to eight websites that continued to provide access to material, despite takedown notices. Six months later, I was able to announce the finalisation of a protocol with the ISPs that, in any future similar online crisis event, will facilitate the rapid blocking of websites that host such harmful material, if required.
Our research has continued to furnish a solid evidence base for eSafety initiatives, while providing stakeholders and the general public with the tools for a deeper analysis of online safety issues. Among the highlights was a report on Online hate speech that revealed about one in seven adult Australians were the targets of hate speech in the 12 months to August 2019. The research team, too, was able to pivot to the pandemic, releasing data from a survey of the impact of COVID-19 on Australian’s online activities and attitudes. The survey revealed a significant shift in internet usage patterns that is likely to become the ‘new normal’; it generated significant media interest.
Our outreach program was another important way we delivered online safety messages and training to a broad range of Australians across various ages and walks of life. In 2019, we started delivering training to chaplains as part of the National Schools Chaplaincy Program. In March 2020, we transitioned all our presentations online. Over the COVID-19 period, eSafety webinars were highly popular, particularly with parents and educators. A ‘Child Safety and Online Learning’ webinar was delivered in response to enquiries coming from schools and organisations. During the course of the year, eSafety provided online safety education to students, parents, educators and community workers through virtual classrooms, webinars and face-to-face presentations. Webinars also became a key tool to support older Australians who wanted to improve their computer skills and address online safety concerns.
Through our eSafetyWomen program, we continued to deliver essential training to frontline workers, to help them combat the use of technology to stalk, control and harass women experiencing family and domestic violence. We also focused on the need to build the capacity of vulnerable groups to combat technology-facilitated abuse, namely women with intellectual and cognitive disabilities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, those from culturally and linguistically diverse communities, and children in domestic and family violence situations.
The resources we offer on our website—for parents, educators, seniors, kids, young people, women, and those in at-risk communities—are critical to our outreach and prevention work. Following the re-launch of the website in October, I am more confident than ever that we offer one of the most comprehensive online safety websites. This was recognised in May with a prestigious Webby Honouree award, which places eSafety in the top 20 per cent of all websites submitted globally, of which there were 13,000, across 70 different countries.
Our Be Connected program continues to address the needs of older Australians seeking support in engaging safely online. During COVID-19, we saw a significant increase in users of our interactive learning site, which now has had more than 6.1 million page-views.
Finally, a highlight of eSafety’s year was eSafety19, a major international conference co-hosted with Netsafe New Zealand. The conference attracted 60 expert speakers and more than 400 guests from around the world. Sessions covered the progress being made across the whole gamut of online safety issues currently on the radar of regulators, legislators, researchers and everyday citizens.
At eSafety19, I launched eSafety Strategy 2019–2022, setting out a range of achievable goals across our areas of operation. The strategy foreshadowed that we would aim better to anticipate the impacts of technological developments on user safety, and this has already been reflected in the Tech trends and challenges feature on our website. The document also outlines the next stage in our Safety by Design initiative, where eSafety will be engaging with industry and other stakeholders to reduce and counter the risks that Australians and citizens everywhere confront online.
I am confident that these strategic settings will position eSafety to continue to support Australians in having safer and more empowering experiences online long after the current unique circumstances in which we live have become a memory.