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Sarah Liberty: Founding Australia’s First Online Human Rights NGO

The internet is still in its infancy. Like an infant, it lacks rules and self-control. As it grows, flaws emerge – lack of data privacy, digital monopolisation and cybersecurity breaches. But for Sarah Liberty, Australia isn’t addressing one major concern: online human rights. It’s why she founded JustSociale, Australia’s first federal NGO dedicated to promoting people’s human rights on the internet.

Mavens corresponded with the UN Women ‘Generation Equality’ Ambassador and CEO to learn more.

You’ve worked in London, New York, Paris, Jogjakarta and Sydney in senior NGO roles. How did you come to start your own NGO, Just Sociale?

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been passionate about fairness, equality, inclusion, diversity and human rights. And I’ve always used the internet professionally, even since the MySpace days before Facebook was created! I’ve always been fascinated by how it influences society.

In Paris last year, I took a course in Internet Governance whilst completing my Master of International Relations (Human Rights) at Sciences Po. It’s the same degree the past 3 French presidents have done – it was intense!

I not only learned about the latest internet trends, but also about the many positive and negative impacts on people around the world. We use social media and the internet daily to connect with friends and loved ones, grow businesses, start movements and create change like Greta Thunberg did. Yet at the same time, tech platforms like Facebook are more powerful than countries, and there is a growing sense of disillusionment and distrust with the major players.

Tech platforms like Facebook are more powerful than countries, and there is a growing sense of disillusionment and distrust with the major players.

For one of my final essays, ‘Sex, Lies and Social Media’, I wrote about the phenomenon of gender-based violence on social media, which disproportionately impacts women, particularly on dating sites. I discussed how it’s being addressed (and not addressed) in Australia. The inspiration for this essay was my own experience of having my computer hacked by an abusive ex-partner; they logged into my emails and social media accounts to digitally surveil me. When I finally discovered he was doing it – long after we had broken up – it took me weeks of persistence to obtain an AVO from the police. And to convince them that what was happening to me was abusive, threatening, terrifying and a violation of my human rights. When I was finally granted a protection order, the police didn’t alert me to the fact that what my partner had done was a breach of Australian law.

After receiving a Distinction for my essay, I popped some champagne (I was in Paris after all), and a few mornings later I knew what my next calling was – to start an Australian NGO dedicated to the awareness, promotion and protection of people’s online human rights.

Most of us have heard of trolling but what exactly is an online human rights abuse? And which groups are most impacted?

Our online human rights are no different to our offline human rights.

The UNHCR declared this in 2012, and referred directly to the first International Bill of Human Rights written by the UN in 1948. It declares that all humans are worthy of dignity and respect, and entitled to freedom from fear.

In 1966, the UN General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 19 stated that ‘everyone holds the right to hold opinions without interference’ and ‘everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression’, which includes the ‘freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.’

It means that anyone who fails to treat others with dignity and respect online – or makes them feel afraid, threatened or distressed – is abusing another person’s online human rights. Additionally, good digital citizenship (a concept developed by UNESCO) involves respecting others’ freedom of expression and opinions, unless they are detrimental to a person’s reputation or security.

The groups who we see most impacted, and who have their online human rights violated in Australia, are women.

1 in 3 women have experienced some form of online harassment or abuse, along with the LGBTQI community, Indigenous Australians, CALD Australians and refugees or asylum seekers.

JustSociale has developed Australia’s first Online Code of Conduct to protect the human rights of internet users. Can you tell us who the code is intended for, and how to become a signatory?

The Online Code of Conduct is intended for anyone who wants to demonstrate their commitment to Internet governance in Australia. This means showing their audience, clientele and users that they take their online human rights and responsibilities seriously, and will strive to be a good digital citizen – both at an individual and organisational level.

Becoming a signatory costs nothing and you can apply by contacting us here.

You were recently featured in AdNews regarding Facebook’s decision to launch ‘Kidstagram’, a platform for kids under the age of 13. Is Facebook on the right path when it comes to protecting kids online?

When I read that Facebook is intending to build a new version of Instagram (called ‘Kidstagram’) for children under 13, I have to admit my stomach churned.

Instagram has clearly identified young people as an important growth segment, and has stated that it intends to build a youth app in order to ensure this platform provides, as reported by BuzzFeed: ‘a version of Instagram that allows people under the age of 13 to safely use Instagram for the first time.’

Whilst I applaud Instagram for attempting to address the fact that young people face abuse, bullying and predation on social networking sites such as Instagram, I’m concerned about the mental and physical impacts that increased social media use may have on them.

The World Health Organisation guidelines for the amount of screen time does not recommend sedentary screen time for children 1-2 years of age, whilst for children aged 2 years, sedentary screen time should be no more than 1 hour, and for children 3-4 years of age sedentary screen time should be no more than 1 hour.

Instagram Chief Adam Mosseri has admitted it does not yet have a clear strategy for its kids version, which leaves me with some lingering questions. Namely, how will Instagram:

  • Ensure that predators do not access the app and befriend younger users?

  • Preserve young people’s online human rights (and prevent rampant bullying)?

  • Educate its young users about the UNESCO concept of good digital citizenship?

  • Ensure that children do not encounter associated health risks such as social media addiction?

As an online human rights advocate, the Kidstagram announcement has left me feeling conflicted. Yes, it may be beneficial to have a separate app for children if the safety issues raised are adequately dealt with. However, with such lack of clarity around how this new development will achieve this, my gut tells me that whilst engaging with others on social media is an important and usually joyful way to connect in today’s era, children may be better encouraged to play, read books, ride swings, play sports and find other hobbies, rather than jump on apps too soon.

We recently read about a Canberra teenager who experienced death threats after being ‘doxxed’. What is doxxing and how can Australia regulate it?

Most people have a heap of personal information that can be found online. Oftentimes, this can be found on their own social media profiles, such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram, but there is also information to be found in forms that you submit, comments you make on articles, surveys you complete, event registrations and more.

Chances are, you are sharing a lot more information online than you realise.

Individually, these bits of information don’t mean much, and it’s not going to do you any harm until somebody puts all the pieces together. This is where doxxing comes in. Doxxing is the act of publicly revealing previously private personal information about an individual or organisation. The name comes from “dropping docs” and it often involves the sharing of addresses without a person’s consent.

Doxxing is dangerous because it can take your personal data and turn it into a weapon that can be used against you.

Interestingly, I have been doxxed by a newspaper who revealed my name, age and suburb of residence – but got away with it because of my public figure status on social media.

How can we regulate it? By promoting awareness of what it is, so that people don’t leave unnecessary information about themselves online. We call this having a ‘good digital footprint.’

We also need to maintain that any sharing of a person’s personal information without their consent should be considered a violation of their online rights, and enforce it by law.

If the doxxing caused harm (online or offline), then an offence has been committed.

‘Section 230’ is a piece of US law that allows tech giants to avoid liability for user content published on their platforms. This enables free speech, but it can also allow misinformation and online human rights abuses. What are your thoughts on the recent review of section 230, and how do you think this will affect our own regulation of tech giants in Australia?

In late March this year, tech’s biggest players were called to a joint hearing at the US House of Representatives. Present were Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Google’s Sundar Pichai.

The hearing related to the proposed changes to the Section 230 laws, proposed by Donald Trump. They were designed to address the spread of misinformation during the Covid pandemic and the presidential election. Unsurprisingly, all the tech giants opposed the changes.

Whilst I acknowledge that all-powerful tech giants are a problem in themselves, I agree that Trump’s proposed changes are not the answer. Why? Because he wanted to limit free speech, and that’s a human right.

‘Everyone holds the right to hold opinions without interference’, states the 1966 UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Article 19. ‘Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression’ which includes the ‘freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.’

Whilst the Australian Constitution does not explicitly protect freedom of expression, the High Court has held that an implied freedom of political communication exists and serves as a freedom from government moderation.

Returning to the hearing on the Hill. Whilst supporters of the reforms believe that the tech giants are not doing enough to stop the spread of misinformation and hate speech, Zuckerberg, Dorsey and Pichai have all argued that the suggested reforms to Section 230 could significantly erode free speech.

Although hate speech and the spread of misinformation are certainly of great concern to me (because of its harmful impact on minority communities), I do hold hope that Facebook, Google and Twitter are effectively working to address these critical issues.

JustSociale prides itself on an inclusive board selected to represent the voices, concerns and needs of diverse Australians. Who is on your board and how did you approach its assembly?

I’m truly honoured to have such a diverse board. I made a deliberate decision to pursue it from the organisation's early days, when I was still finishing my Masters in Paris.

We have high profile Transgender Authority Melissa Griffiths, high profile Indigenous Board Member, Former Young Conservationist of the Year and Tedx Speaker Josh Gilbert, high profile Disability Influencer and Model Lisa Cox, Digital Guru and Postgraduate Psychology student Nicholas Riggs, Digital Communications Maven and Online Meditation Teacher Ashley Hunt, Director of Womens’ March Sydney Jaime Evans, and myself as Chair.

I met several of my board members through previous roles in Australia’s human rights sector, and collected a few after interviewing them for my weekly intersectional #FeministFridays podcast. When I meet someone who shares my passion for promoting diversity and inclusion, we often stay in touch and our paths cross again not long after! I was delighted when they all agreed to join the board. I’ve never found it difficult to find talented people who are diverse and inclusive. The richness of views shared only serves to strengthen JustSociale as a team and as an organisation.

According to Yellow, 1 in 3 Australians believe they’re spending too much time on social media. How can we foster healthier habits when it comes to social media usage?

Promoting balance between how much you are using technology is a big part of the work we do at JustSociale. Here are our top tips to adopt healthy screen-time habits:

  • Turn off push notifications for your social media apps, as well as your emails.

  • Take note of your daily/weekly screen time and set a goal to reduce it each week.

  • Set aside time to check social media and your emails, and then only check them during this time. This could be while commuting, or while waiting for an appointment.

  • Spring clean your phone. Go through and delete any apps that you don't need. If they are not there, then you won’t use them.

In a world where we rely on our phones for directions, medication reminders, communication and even our income – chucking away our phones isn’t really an option. However, we do have the option to form good micro habits and overcome device dependency.

Lastly, how can Mavens’ audience be good digital citizens?

Being a good digital citizen includes being aware of certain aspects of your online activities, including your digital footprint, digital identity and digital rights.

Here are some simple steps to be a good digital citizen:

  • Google your name and see what comes up. This helps you understand what data of yours is available online.

  • When using online platforms, conduct yourself in a manner that is responsible, respectful of others’ rights, inclusive and authentic (by which we mean, not creating a false persona).

  • Think carefully about the amount of personal information you choose to share about yourself online.

  • Taking an active interest in learning skills and understanding new platforms online so that you can be an informed, responsible member of our digital society.

  • Know your online rights and respect the rights of others in all of your online interactions.

To find out how you can make a tax-deductible donation or get involved with JustSociale, visit the website here.


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