VIEW: Why Australia needs an online Code of Conduct

The below is a guest post from Sarah Liberty, CEO and Founder of JustSociale.

In 2012, the UNHCR declared that our online human rights are no different to our offline human rights. Yet, almost ten years on, many Australians are still unaware that they have online human rights. And, in the rapidly evolving realm of the Internet and social media, navigating our online human rights – and knowing how to protect them – can be especially challenging. 

I should know because I’ve experienced it.

When my email and social media accounts were hacked, and I was digitally surveilled by an abusive former partner – a breach of Australian law – I wasn’t sure what to do, or where to turn to for support. 

When I tried to file a complaint with my local police station, it took weeks of persistence to obtain an ADVO, and even when I was successful, the police didn’t alert me to the fact that what my partner had done was illegal.

My case is not the exception. As a 2018 poll among women aged 18-55 commissioned by Amnesty found, one third of respondents had encountered some form of online harassment or abuse.

Inspired by my personal experience, and after gaining academic and professional expertise as an NGO and Communications leader in London, New York, Paris, Jogjakarta and Sydney, I established JustSociale as Australia’s first federally ACNC-accredited NGO dedicated to promoting awareness of human rights online.

We are a defiantly optimistic collective of social entrepreneurs, creatives, civil society actors, technology platforms, media outlets, activists, private businesses and members of diverse communities who are passionate about making the Internet universally accessible and inclusive, so that we can all use it to connect with each other, and the global community – safely.

Ultimately, our aim is to foster a culture of trust, transparency and responsibility for everyone operating in the digital domain, and to promote good digital citizenship. Much of our day-to-day lives now happen online, and Australians are prolific users of the Internet and social media: 71 percent of the population has active social media accounts. A recent survey even found that in the morning, “more than half of the adult population wake up and check their social media feed as the very first activity of the day!” However, as the eSafety Commissioner notes, 67% of Australian adults have also had a negative experience online (in the 12 months to August 2019), ranging from repeated unwanted messages or online contact (such as pornography or violent content), to scams, viruses, hate speech, abuse and threats.

This is unacceptable to me. It is why JustSociale is developing Australia’s first Online Code of Conduct –  to provide collective solutions that are shaped by the Australian public, and agreed upon by digital stakeholders – not forced upon them top down by securitising the digital realm, as the government is attempting to do. Our Code provides a set of guidelines that signatories can voluntarily adopt to demonstrate to the public, clients or their beneficiaries that they take online human rights seriously. 

As the recent Tinder and Bumble exposes highlighted – whereby investigations found a pattern of sex offenders blocking their victims after a rape to delete any trace of their prior communication – the onus has far too long been on individuals rather than the platforms themselves to report and put a stop to negative or harmful online behaviour. However, rather than strong-arming or blaming tech platforms, and promoting a culture of fear or shooting the digital messenger, I believe now is the time to build long-term solutions and practices that ensure all actors take the route of responsibility, trust and transparency. JustSociale is here to work with tech platforms, the government and all stakeholders with an interest in Internet governance to educate Australians of their online rights and responsibilities as digital citizens in order to self empower people, and to foster societal change.  

Despite the Internet’s extensive penetration in Australia, digital and cultural exclusion remain significant challenges. 2.5 million people – or just over 10% of our population – are still not online – either because of cost, location or digital literacy. The voices of diverse communities are also censored by algorithms on social media.

JustSociale’s national Alliance and Online Code of Conduct, however, will change this. We stand with diverse communities so they can claim their online rights and access the Internet equally, safely and confidently. As a report from the Human Rights Council of the United Nations General Assembly best put it, access to the internet is a basic human right, integral to allowing individuals to “exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

For more about JustSociale, visit www.justsociale.org


About the expert

Sarah Liberty is the Founder and CEO of JustSociale. A social entrepreneur, public speaker, radio presenter, podcaster and human rights advocate.Her career has spanned executive roles in the media and in international NGOs in London, New York, Jogjakarta, Sydney and Paris. Sarah recently completed her Master of International Relations: Human Rights, at Sciences Po University, Paris, and hosts a weekly international #FeministFriday Podcast available on all major podcast platforms reaching 42 countries. Sarah is an Ambassador for UN Women’s #GenerationEquality campaign and is regularly approached by the media to comment on human rights, social entrepreneurship, international relations, technology and social media news.


Image description: Headshot of Sarah in a black collared shirt, with short reddish brown hair. There are pink flowers in the background.