eSafety commissioner cautions basing tech policy on moral panic

By Anna Macdonald

May 4, 2022

Australian eSafety commissioner Julie Inman Grant
Australian eSafety commissioner Julie Inman Grant. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Australian eSafety commissioner Julie Inman Grant has cautioned against the development of tech policy in response to waves of ‘moral panic’. 

In a virtual discussion titled ‘Tech policy from ground zero to today’, moderated by the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) director Victoria Nash, Grant said the regulation of tech by government has, on occasion, been influenced by sensationalised media accounts of online harm incidents.

“Suicide is an incredibly complex phenomenon with a range of factors contributing, and usually underlying mental health issues,” said Inman Grant. “Drawing a causal link between cyberbullying or image-based abuse and suicide can create a dangerous precedent. 

“Time and again, we do tend to see a familiar pattern. A tragedy happens, it’s broadly propagated by the media, which may then be picked up by politicians and added to the gristle of the policy-making sausage machine. This is why mindful, planned policy development, looking at the evidence, and defining the policy solutions and shaping the future environment is critical and, in my view, leads to much better policy outcomes.”

Inman Grant further stressed the importance of not only research-based policy, but tech policy keeping up with tech trends.

“This is going to be a very complicated and nuanced space. If you’re thinking about things like immutability and anonymity on the blockchain how do you — and with nobody being responsible — remediate harm? How do you remove child sexual abuse material or image-based abuse if they’re on a public ledger in perpetuity?” asked Inman Grant.

‘Research underpins everything we do at eSafety,’ she added.

The commissioner discussed at length the dangers and challenges of Big Tech, drawing on her personal experience working at both Microsoft and Twitter, as well as the Facebook document leak by whistleblower Frances Haugen, as first reported in The Wall Street Journal

“Having spent so much time in the tech sector,” said Inman Grant, “I usually know the talking points before the people walk in the door, but I also have seen — because I was blinded — how companies can be very slippery with their numbers or in admitting facts. We really just have to outwit them and be very clever about how we ask these questions and compel that transparency and frankly, that accountability.”

Part of the discussion focused on Inman Grant’s detailed account of her career progression, including working at companies such as Microsoft, Twitter, and working as a lobbyist in Washington, DC. 


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