Legal experts have cast doubt on the Federal Government's proposed anti-trolling laws

While the Federal Government's planned anti-trolling laws have been met with encouragement by victims of online abuse, some academics and the Law Council of Australia have expressed concerns that the reforms might actually fail to meet their objectives and be unhelpful in stopping online trolling.

The draft laws announced by the government last November, which are aimed at making trolls accountable for their online comments, include new powers for courts to make social media companies reveal trolls' details to be used in defamation cases. The Draft Bill was announced following the Dylan Voller case, in which the High Court of Australia agreed that media companies are actually liable for comments made by third-parties on their social media networks. 

One of the biggest issues being highlighted by experts is how the draft legislation has too narrow a view of trolling, by focusing on defamation as the only kind of trolling behavour worth prosecuting, which they say is an oversimplification of a fairly complex issue. They also say the legislation could be abused for the wrong reasons, possibly exposing individuals to unfair liability.

Yesterday the Law Council of Australia released a statement to that effect, outlining some of the proposal's weaknesses and recommending that the Federal Government not intervene in defamation laws. The Council also recommended that the government should consider the findings of Stage 2 of a review process currently underway into model defamation provisions by the Attorney-General's Department, before suggesting any future legislative reforms. 

Commenting on the Draft Bill, Law Council president Mr Tass Liveris said: "Defamation is actually only a very small proportion of what constitutes social media trolling. For many reasons, defamation law is likely to be a relatively ineffective mechanism for seeking individual reputational redress and for reducing trolling activity in social media. In practice, the Draft Bill will have very little impact in improving this situation," he said. 

The Law Council statement said the Draft Bill "does not adequately balance competing public interests, may leave victims without recourse, and in certain circumstances, may provide unwarranted complete protection from liability."

Dr Lauren Rosewarne, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne's School of Social and Political Science in an interview with the ABC's RN program, agreed that the definition of trolling could extend beyond just defamation.

"I think we need to be a bit careful, because I don't think we've got a universal agreement on trolling. For example, I quite often get messages that I consider harassing from certain politicians that somehow have my mobile phone number and they're coming quite regularly. Is that trolling? Does that fit the legislation, even if I can't get them to stop?," she asked. 

Rosewarne also doubted the effectiveness of the the draft legislation. "The solution doesn't seem to match the policy problem, from my perspective. It addresses the literal defamation of character that I think politicians seem to think is the kind of abuse that happens online. Most of us who have been a victim of online bullying, trolling, harassment - know it's not defamation. It's harassment of a very different kind," she said.