Cyber bullying protections needed for sex and gender diverse people: SAGE

A stock image depicting online bullying. (File photo.)

By STAFF WRITERS

Sex and Gender Education (SAGE) Australia, the Sydney-based lobby group promoting equal rights for sex and/or gender diverse (SGD) people, has called on the federal government to include protections for SGD communities in its proposed Online Anti-Bullying Bill.

The planned bill, currently under consultation, would require social media websites and apps to remove severely harmful, abusive or bullying content within 24 hours or face fines and restrictions within Australia.

According to SAGE, SGD people – including lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex, queer, questioning and other sex and/or gender diverse groups – face disproportionate levels of harm from online bullying.

Because many people from SGD groups may be socially isolated, they can rely heavily on electronic communication such as social media – a situation which has become even more pronounced during Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions, further compounding the effects of online bullying.

“For people from [SGD] groups, online bullying can lead to depression, anxiety, social phobias, suicidal thoughts, attempted and successful suicide, and exposing them publicly to targeted violence and sometimes murder,” said Dr Tracie O’Keefe DCH, sexologist and co-founder of SAGE.

“When your major form of communication has become electronic, bullying leaves you even further isolated and powerless.”

Dr O’Keefe said SGD people were especially prone to extreme right-wing groups, religious fanatics and psychopathic individuals who seek out SGD people online in order to bully them via highly offensive discriminatory statements.

Such individuals actually want to cause damage to SGD people and believe they have a right to cause them distress and put them in danger of violence, said Dr O’Keefe, who pointed out that tech companies often do not proactively monitor online bullying.

“While they may have algorithms that are supposed to identify and block bullying material, a computer program cannot understand when a person is being insulted, discriminated against or placed in danger by other people’s posts,” said Dr O’Keefe.

Adding to the complexity of the situation, while Australia has both state and federal anti-discrimination laws, most online tech companies that offer services to Australia are foreign-owned and administrated.

Getting a response to a complaint about bullying from such companies can take months, putting victims at further risk.

The proposed bill would address this by giving extra powers to Australia’s eSafety Commissioner, who would be able to order the removal of offensive online bullying material and issue fines to the person who posted the material, as well as the service provider.

In December, eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant told ABC News that concerns about limiting free speech had prevented governments from legislating against online abuse sooner.

“Unbridled free speech, including hate speech, violence, threats, racism, misogyny — all of these, if they aren’t kept in check, this actually leads to suppression of speech because these voices that we want to promote are no longer protected,” she said.

The full SAGE Australia submission contains a number of recommendations, including specific wording to protect people on the grounds of their sex, gender and sexuality. The submissions urges that no exemptions be made on the grounds of being a journalist or having religious license.

Submissions on the draft Online Safety Bill are due by mid-February.