Meet Julie Inman Grant: Australia’s Online Safety Commissioner on Protecting Women from Internet Abuse
At Bumble Inc., the safety of our community is central to our mission and one of our highest priorities. We believe everyone deserves a safe and comfortable place to make empowered, respectful, and meaningful connections. Our teams work closely with regulators and lawmakers in our core markets to ensure we’re protecting our members—including women and folks from marginalised groups. In Australia, we’ve hosted our first “Brunch with Bumble” policy conversation with women leaders including policymakers, academics, and experts from non-governmental organisations and advocacy groups. At “Brunch with Bumble,” we discuss how to prioritise women’s safety online; before bringing this event to Australia, we’ve held brunches in India and—virtually—in the Asia-Pacific region.
In June 2023, we welcomed Julie Inman Grant, Australia’s eSafety commissioner. Here, she tells our Bumble community about her pioneering role as her country’s internet safety lead—as well as giving advice to other women seeking to create change.
Content warning: abuse, self-harm.
Q: Australia is the first country in the world to have a government regulatory agency committed to keeping its citizens safer online. How did this office come to be? What is it about Australia that’s made the country a pioneer in this space, do you think?
To a large extent, eSafety was born out of tragedy—but also friendship.
In 2014, the New Zealand and Australian television presenter Charlotte Dawson took her own life. Charlotte had been open and public about her mental health struggles and was mercilessly trolled on social media. Her stricken friends channelled their grief by starting a petition to the Commonwealth Government calling for laws against cyberbullying.
That petition bore fruit a year later. Paul Fletcher, a parliamentary secretary at the time, pioneered the establishment of the world’s first online safety regulator—incorporating the first legislated take-down scheme for serious cyberbullying targeting a child.
Fast forward seven years, we now have even greater powers to protect Australians from serious online abuse—not just children, but adults as well. Thanks to strengthened powers under the Online Safety Act, Australians experiencing serious cyberbullying, serious adult cyber abuse or image-based abuse (the non-consensual sharing, or threatened sharing, of intimate images and videos) can report to eSafety.gov.au/report to have this content removed.
I believe Australia is a world leader in this space because governments and political leaders of all stripes responded to countless stories of loss and pain that originated in, or were compounded by, the online world. While the advocacy of Charlotte’s friends was a potent trigger for a much-needed debate about online safety, their advocacy was amplified by a chorus of voices who bravely shared tales of heartbreaking abuse, exploitation, and trauma. It was a chorus too loud and too compelling to ignore.
Q: You have a long career in public policy and safety roles at big tech companies, and have worked in Washington, D.C., in the U.S. Congress. What made you decide to take this role as eSafety Commissioner, and how did your career to date inform that decision?
Whether at Microsoft, Twitter or Adobe, my focus has always been on harnessing the benefits of technology and minimising the risks, being a sort of safety antagonist. I wanted the companies I worked for to care more about minimising personal harms and embedding ‘Safety by Design’, like they do privacy and security by design.
When I was offered the role of eSafety Commissioner after a very lengthy merit-based process, the road ahead seemed very, very scary. Few of us have an opportunity to really make a mark on the world and this role was an opportunity to help contribute to systemic change and make the online world safer and more positive for everyone.
My contribution might only be a very small mark, but this job has been an absolute privilege and an honour.
Q: At Bumble, our mission from day one has been to help keep women safe on the internet. You preside over a team responsible for exactly that: ensuring women and those from marginalised genders all across Australia, including First Nations women, are empowered in their online experience, free from abuse and harassment. Can you tell us about your eSafety programme Women In The Spotlight?
The abuse of women online cuts across all platforms and technologies and is frequently rooted in harmful gender norms, discrimination, modes of oppression and unequal power structures.
Research shows that this type of harm has profound and far-reaching consequences: not just on the individual, but on society. From profound psychological distress at an individual level, to reduced workforce and political participation at a societal level
In Australia, 1 in 3 women who were surveyed by eSafety reported encountering online abuse in a work context. Many reported taking a backward step professionally after abuse, avoiding leadership positions and dodging discussion topics they feared would be inflammatory.
Our Women in the Spotlight program conducts regular Social Media Self Defence workshops; teaching skills to help more Australians use social media more safely. The idea is to preserve access to social media’s professional benefits while reducing the risks.
Ultimately, however, the best way to tackle gender-based online abuse is to reduce the possibility of it occurring in the first place. That will involve a degree of concerted cultural and behavioural change that will take time to manifest. In the meantime, technology companies can take more responsibility to anticipate and prevent misogynistic abuse.
Q: You yourself are a high-profile woman with an online platform. Has your own experience on the internet informed your work at all?
I’ve been exposed to online abuse that has been horrifically violent and misogynistic. To say that I have been disturbed at times is an understatement.
However, my own experiences often pale in comparison to what First Nations women, women living with disability, culturally and linguistically diverse women and other marginalised groups experience every day of their online lives.
When I came to eSafety, I wanted to deliver compassionate, rapid citizen-centric service. I wanted to make sure that our investigators were supported to go that extra mile when people report online abuse to us. It took some time, but we’ve hired the right people and we’ve got the right processes, which included building our investigative system from the ground up. We also deliver diversity training and guidance around taking a trauma-informed approach to incident management.
We’re often hearing from people who’ve experienced the worst invasions of privacy imaginable. When they come to us, we try to make sure that they feel comfortable, and that they don’t feel shame or embarrassment. While we’re not counsellors, we’ve got relationships with specialist mental health services we can refer them to, and we also refer them on to legal aid or to law enforcement, if required.
Even in those situations where we can’t get the material taken down because it hasn’t met the legal threshold for removal, we’re talking people through their experiences and we’re validating that what they’ve experienced is distressing and hurtful. We help them to feel heard and understood.
While our content removal powers are some of the most robust in the world, the online landscape is expanding and morphing at a rate that is impossible to compute. I’m concerned that new and emerging technologies, such as generative artificial intelligence and immersive tech, may be weaponised to cause further harm to women and girls in ways that are both more visceral, but also more difficult to detect.
We need industry to proactively build in safety from the outset, rather than bolting it on when harm has occurred. This is fundamental to the Safety by Design approach, which we’ve long been promoting. It’s one of the best ways to protect diverse voices online.
Q: How does your team work with organisations and companies to ensure we’re doing all we can to make the internet a safer place?
As a relatively small regulator at the opposite end of the globe to the big tech sector, I believe the eSafety team is punching well and truly above its weight. We have a world-class team of innovators, investigators and educators achieving cut through every day on important, complex issues.
But our impact and successes are not ours alone. We work with some incredible partners from the hyper-local to the global who share our passion for making the online world safer for everyone.
I think a key part of our success is that we are also lovers of technology and don’t view the world as black and white. Even as we work tirelessly to mitigate online harms, we also believe that technology can create an extraordinary amount of good and address some of the deeply entrenched inequalities that divide our world into the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots.’
Yes, we must and will ask tough questions of industry and advocate for the online rights of children, the marginalised and the vulnerable. But we also appreciate that we’re working at the complex intersection of technical, regulatory, safety, privacy, security and human rights issues and there are no simple answers to the questions we ask.
Q: What advice would you give to women who want to create change?
Creating change in this complex, fast-paced, unequal and ever-evolving world takes resilience. Don’t underestimate how important family, friends, time with a book and nature are when it comes to finding that resolve to keep pushing onwards and upwards. Invest in yourself even as you champion the needs and voices of others.