The Morrison Government says it will ‘unmask’ anonymous internet users. 

The government’s latest social media crackdown will give Australian courts new powers to order tech giants to identify perpetrators of online abuse. If they do not, they risk bearing the cost of defamation payouts themselves.

New laws to be introduced to Federal Parliament will allow people who believe they have been defamed online to get court orders that force social media companies to reveal who is responsible for the posts.

The Prime Minister says the internet should not be a “wild west where bots and bigots and trolls” harm people without consequence, and there needs to be a “quick and fast way” to get content taken down.

“Free speech is not being allowed to cowardly hide in your basement and sledge … and harass people anonymously and seek to destroy their lives,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said over the weekend.

“That is cowardice - and there is no place for that in this country.”

He said it is right to hold platforms responsible for the content posted by users. 

“They have that responsibility. They have created this world,” he said.

“They have created the space, and they need to make it safe, and if they won’t, we will make them laws such as this, and I will campaign for these all around the world as I have done on so many other occasions with Australia taking the lead.”

The new measures will also require social media outlets to establish online customer shopfronts in Australia to comply with orders. They will also have to create a complaints scheme for victims to find out if comments were made in Australia and, if so, to obtain the contact details of the poster.

Additionally, complainants will be able to obtain a new “End-user Information Disclosure Order”, under which a social media company can unmask trolls without consent.

The measures will require a change to the law to make social media providers responsible for payouts arising from defamatory comments on their platform if the person making the comments cannot be identified.

The planned changes have already been criticised for their potential to harm international relations and breach human rights obligations.

Digital Rights Watch executive director Lucie Krahulcova says she is “incredibly frustrated” about the Government’s obsession with pursuing people who are anonymous online. 

“They're not actually very excited about enforcing [existing laws] on behalf of women, people of colour, and historically I think there's plenty of evidence of that in Australia,” Ms Krahulcova says.

“When we are speaking now about an attack on anonymity, it is because white men are uncomfortable with the criticism they get online. And that's not just politicians, it's also certain reporters and kind of sports stars and stuff. It is precisely because this societal group of privilege is frustrated with criticism.”

“It's not just bad policy. It's reckless.

“Australia needs to have a serious think about the system that it's putting out into the world.”

Kara Hinesley, Twitter's public policy director for Australia and New Zealand, says there are many good and legitimate reasons for online anonymity -  journalists protecting sources and whistleblowers, people exploring their sexuality or gender identity, ethnic or religious groups exploring their heritage, people escaping abuse and domestic violence, human rights defenders, dissidents and artists.

“Anonymity can be a form of protection and a critical tool for people... Evidence is overwhelmingly pointing to anonymity bans being ineffective,” she said. 

David Kaye, a former United Nations special rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, says anonymity and the confidentiality of communications must be preserved. 

“It's under threat in democratic societies. It's under threat in authoritarian ones. There tend to be different reasons for that threat, but it's very much under threat,” he said.

“Australia's proposals, I think, go beyond what we've seen in most rule of law-oriented societies.”

The government will seek test cases because most litigants in defamation cases against social media giants cannot match them financially.

“Social media services, they need to step up and they need to understand that they have a responsibility in this regard, and that is why this important step, providing clarity to all Australians, but in particular to social media companies - you will be deemed to be publisher,” Attorney-General Michaelia Cash said.