Australians are some of the world’s greatest users of social media and mobile broadband, and our nation is in the top ten globally for internet use. At a time when our use of these technologies is increasingly redefining aspects of our personal and professional lives, Digital Rights in Australia explores urgent questions about the nature of our rights now and into the future.The report covers
rights issues in four areas: privacy, profiling and analytics; government data matching and surveillance; workplace change; and freedom of expression and speech regulation. It explores the ethical and legal challenges we face in using digital, networked technologies and the debates we are having about how to best manage their transformative impacts.
Crucially this study examines the major role of private, transnational digital platforms in reshaping the way we work, study and conduct business, our interactions with government and with each other.
This report draws on three sources of data: a national survey of the attitudes and opinions of 1600 Australians on key rights issues; focus group discussion of related rights scenarios; and analysis of legal, policy and governance issues, illustrated by case studies.It's core findings are -
Privacy, Profiling, Data Analytics
- Australians are concerned about their online privacy. While two thirds of our respondents believe they personally have nothing to hide, only a small group (18%) think that more general concerns about online privacy are exaggerated.
- A majority of our respondents do not feel in control of their privacy online. While a majority take active steps to protect their privacy (67%), and have changed settings on the social media they use most often (61%), a minority (38%) felt that they can control their privacy online.
- Women experience the online world differently from men: they are more likely to agree that they actively protect their privacy online (71%, compared with 63% of men) and change their social media settings (63%, compared with 58% of men), but feel no more in control of their privacy (39%, compared with 38% of men).
- There may be a significant group for whom the answer to questions relating to privacy online are: “it depends” (this contrasts with answers about governments and privacy).
- Corporations were the major source of concern: 57% were concerned about their privacy being violated by corporations, although a substantial number were also concerned about privacy violations by government (47%) and other people (47%).
- A large majority (78%) want to know what social media companies do with their personal data.
- In the online focus group, participants’ views were mixed on the use of data in targeted advertising and price discrimination. But there was a consensus that content targeting for political purposes is different: for example, paying a social media platform to boost a negative opinion article about a rival party to users in marginal seats was seen as crossing a line.
Government Data Matching and Surveillance
- Nearly half of our respondents were concerned about government violating their privacy (47%).
- A majority are opposed to government programs for phone companies and internet service providers to keep metadata on phone calls and web use. 79% of respondents considered retention of information about phone calls to be a privacy breach. A majority (58%) were also opposed to a policy for government-mandated retention of information about internet communications.
- But a change in frame altered these numbers. When asked whether they favour law enforcement and security agencies being able to access metadata, the number in favour jumped up to 42% (47% opposed). Once framed as an anti-terrorism measure, government data-gathering about internet is supported by a majority of respondents (57%), while only 31% oppose a program described this way.
- Our findings highlight the critical importance of the framing of questions when assessing public support for data collection and sharing, and interpreting survey results.
- Respondents’ attitudes towards both government collection of communications data, and government data matching programs, varied significantly depending on political identification. Respondents who identified with the Coalition were significantly more likely to support programs; identification with the Greens made a respondent more likely to oppose such programs.
- There is considerable ambivalence among the survey participants towards online government data matching programs. We found that 42% are in favour and 45% are opposed to a program that tracks citizen use of public services and benefits. Our online focus group was also sharply divided on a range of data matching scenarios put to them.
- Digital privacy at work matters. Most Australians do not think employers should look at their employees’ social media pages. While 37% agreed that it was acceptable for either prospective or current employers to look at public social media posts; only 20% agreed that it was ok for either current or prospective employers to look at private posts.
- High school educated, those not working in professional/skilled work, and respondents over 40, were most concerned about employers accessing their social media posts.
- Only 16% of people agreed that using social media was an important part of their job, but most workplaces (72%) they were in had a policy about using social media while at work. Most workplaces seem to recognize the everyday ubiquity of social media use and are attempting to govern it, though only 46% of respondents said their workplace had a policy on what they post online.
- In this terrain of unclear directions over social media at work and employers’ rights to access posts, our online discussion groups reinforced that privacy boundaries are important, but also that employees needed to use their own “common sense”.
- The encroachment of some new policy agendas, such as that seen in the case study of the Public Service Commission, needs to better reflect citizens’ desires for digital privacy at, and from, work.
- The app driven, online gig economy presents a new space for digital rights analysis. Most respondents have heard of, but not used, a platform such as Uber, Airtasker or Deliveroo; and use is skewed towards those under 40 and the university educated.
- Australians see gig work as providing workers with more flexibility, but at the same time a majority are also concerned about the financial insecurity of this kind of work. Over 60% believe that these new forms of work need new government regulations. Yet, as shown in the case study, institutionalising fairer regulations is fraught.
- Australians are not strongly wedded to the North American ideal of absolute speech freedom online. Just over a third (37%) of those surveyed agreed that they should “be free to say and do what I want online”, but 30% disagreed and a third expressed reservations about the idea. People were also less supportive of others having that absolute freedom than themselves.
- 50% of Australians agreed that everyone should have the right to online anonymity or pseudonymity, a figure that increases to 57% for those under 40 years. Around a third of younger Australians said it was more likely that they would make honest and open comment on the news, talk about sensitive topics like sexuality or question others’ opinions if they had the opportunity to comment anonymously.
- Men are more likely to assert their right to free expression than women, reflecting the male dominance of everyday speech online as much as of offline.
- Gender is a key variable in understanding attitudes to social media regulation. Men were less likely than women to agree with the need to remove within 24 hours instances of sexual harassment, abuse targeted at an individual, or hate speech that encourages violence against others. Women were less supportive than men of the right to anonymity.
- While most Australians had not experienced negative impacts from risky or harmful online speech, 39% have been affected by mean or abusive remarks and 27% have had personal content posted without consent. Our case study on image-based abuse emphasises the need for law reform and educational strategies to address new privacy and speech rights breaches.
- More than was the case for either work or privacy issues, Australians agreed on the need for more regulation of online discussion environments. They flagged the need for increased involvement by social media platforms in content moderation and ‘easy’ complaints reporting.
- There was a perception gap between people’s belief that harmful social media content was easy to get taken down, and the procedural reality that it is not always straightforward and may require regulatory intervention to persuade the host company to act, as the European Commission hate speech case study suggests.