A Obstacles to Access 23 25
B Limits on Content 28 35
C Violations of User Rights 25 40
Last Year's Score & Status
77 100 Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free). See the research methodology and report acknowledgements.

header1 Overview

Internet freedom in Australia declined during the coverage period. The country’s information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure is well developed, and prices for connections are low, ensuring that much of the population enjoys access to the internet. However, a number of website restrictions, such as those related to online piracy or “abhorrent” content, limit the content available to users. Other legal changes—including court decisions expanding the country’s punitive defamation standards, an injunction silencing digital media coverage of a high-profile trial, and a problematic law that undermines encryption—shrank the space for free online expression in Australia. An escalating series of cyberattacks likely linked to the Chinese government continues to challenge the security of Australia’s digital sphere.

Australia is a democracy with a strong record of advancing and protecting political rights and civil liberties. Recent challenges to these freedoms have included the threat of foreign political influence, harsh policies toward asylum seekers, and ongoing disparities faced by indigenous Australians.

header2 Key Developments, June 1, 2019 – May 31, 2020

  • The government claims that the National Broadband Network (NBN) program, which seeks to broaden the accessibility of internet services, especially in rural communities, has nearly reached completion (see A1 and A2).
  • Journalists and media outlets that reported on the trial of Cardinal George Pell, allegedly in breach of suppression orders, were charged with contempt in May 2020, chilling digital reporting (see B4).
  • Misinformation proliferated online in response to global crises, including conspiracies relating to COVID-19 and false claims regarding the cause of the 2019–2020 Australian bushfires (see B5).
  • The Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), Australia’s foreign intelligence agency, confirmed in March 2020 that it had spied on Australian citizens, subject to ministerial approval (see C5).
  • Australian public institutions continue to be targeted by sophisticated cyberattacks, widely suspected to originate from Chinese government sources (see C8).

A Obstacles to Access

There are few obstacles to internet access in Australia. Service continues to improve in remote and rural areas throughout the country. The nearly completed rollout of the National Broadband Network is driving prices down to some extent. The ICT sector is mature and competitive, generally providing Australians with high-quality internet connectivity.

A1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 6.006 6.006

There are few infrastructural limitations on internet access or speeds. The country has a high internet penetration rate: some 87.9 percent of the population used the internet in 2019, according to the Australian Digital Inclusion Index.1 This rate is expected to steadily increase with the implementation of the National Broadband Network (NBN) program, which entails expanded wireless, fiber-optic, and satellite internet services, especially in rural communities. The NBN is starting to deliver faster connections to more residents at lower costs, but it has been dogged by complaints and delays.2 In December 2019 the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) reported that growing access to the NBN had significantly improved overall access to high-speed broadband services for users across Australia. However, congestion on some fixed wireless services remained an issue for users in remote parts of Australia. Additionally, technical limitations in some areas limited the speeds available to consumers.3

A spokesperson for the NBN network claimed in June 2020 that the network was 99 percent complete. At least 100,000 households and businesses remain excluded from the network.4 The NBN’s completion date, initially scheduled for 2016–17, is targeted for the end of 2020.5

Australians experienced a general slowing of internet speeds as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with greater numbers of people working from home. Canberra was the worst affected, reportedly experiencing 6 percent more internet congestion since residents started self-isolating in March 2020.6 The ACCC reported in May 2020 that internet speeds and performance had recovered following the initial decline after the NBN Co (the publicly-owned operator of the NBN) offered retail service providers 40 percent extra network capacity for free.7

Users generally access the internet through desktop or laptop computers and smartphones.8 There are a number of internet connection options, including cable, dial-up, digital subscriber line (DSL), fiber-optic, mobile, and satellite services.9 The vast majority of data consumed by Australians in 2019 was via a fixed-line broadband connection.10 By January 2019, the number of internet users had reached 21.74 million, in a country of about 25 million people.11

The majority of NBN broadband services operated in 2019 on wholesale speed tiers of 50 Mbps.12 Ookla’s May 2019 Speedtest Global Index ranked Australia 62nd in the world for fixed-line broadband internet speeds, but fifth in the world for mobile broadband internet speeds.13

In 2019, 2G and 3G networks were rendered largely obsolete, while upgrades were made on the 4G network and the 5G rollout continued. The vast majority of the population is covered by 3G and 4G networks, but the remaining 1 to 2 percent either have no service or lack choice between service providers.14 Providers Telstra, Vodafone, and Optus have started offering limited 5G services in some areas, with coverage due to continue to expand through 2020. In August 2018, Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, was barred from participating in the development of Australia’s 5G network. Critics are concerned that the ban, which was imposed on national security grounds, will result in slower 5G internet speeds and delays in the rollout of the service.15

A2 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 2.002 3.003

Internet access is affordable for most Australians. The gradual shift to NBN services across the country is resulting in greater competition among ISPs, higher-quality connections, and improved speeds.1 The number of premises with active NBN connections increased to over 7 million as of the end of the coverage period, with over 11.4 million premises ready to connect.2

Telecommunications services are becoming cheaper, with the ACCC reporting a 1.5 percent decrease in the annual price of a fixed-line broadband connection and a 6.6 percent decrease in the annual price of a mobile broadband connection in 2018–19.3 In the 2019 Inclusive Internet Index, Australia was ranked fourth out of 100 countries surveyed in terms of the affordability of prices for internet connections.4

A digital divide persists between urban and nonurban areas, though it is narrowing. As of July 2020, after the coverage period, the Statutory Infrastructure Provider Regime requires NBN Co and other internet providers to guarantee minimum download and upload speeds during peak hours. The new provisions are designed to ensure consistent, high-quality internet access to people living in remote areas, and have been welcomed by rural residents weathering the coronavirus pandemic.5 The NBN rollout has significantly improved access, with rural Australians having a proportionately greater uptake of NBN fixed broadband than urban Australians.6

The Mobile Coverage Black Spot program, a government initiative, had installed 725 base stations across remote areas of Australia in order to fill gaps in mobile coverage as of June 2019.7

One study published in 2017 attributed the lower rate of internet penetration in rural areas to the higher median age, larger populations of disadvantaged indigenous Australians, and higher unemployment rates.8 Indigenous Australians generally have a lower level of digital inclusion, with affordability remaining a key barrier to access, though this is improving over time.9 Low-income households and people aged 65 and over were also more likely to be excluded from accessing the internet.10

Gender is not a barrier to access, with men using the internet only slightly more frequently than women.11

A3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 6.006 6.006

The government does not impose restrictions on internet connectivity or mobile networks.

Australia is connected to the international internet through undersea cables that are not controlled by the government.1 Domestically, internet traffic flows through either commercial or nonprofit internet exchange points (IXPs),2 which are located in most major cities.3

Under the iCode, a set of voluntary cybersecurity guidelines for ISPs, internet connectivity may be temporarily restricted for users whose devices have become part of a botnet—an array of computers that have been hijacked for use in coordinated cyberattacks or spam distribution—or are at high risk of being infected with malicious software. Such users may have their internet service temporarily throttled or find themselves in a “walled garden,” or quarantine, until they have communicated with their ISP and restored security.4

The 1997 Telecommunications Act places obligations on providers to assist authorities in certain circumstances, including restricting the provision of services in emergencies.5

A4 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 5.005 6.006

The ISP sector is free of major legal, regulatory, and economic obstacles that might restrict the diversity of service providers. However, telecommunications giant Telstra has consistently held the largest share of the mobile and broadband markets.

Australia hosts a competitive market for internet access, with 63 providers as of mid-2017, including 9 very large ISPs (with more than 100,000 subscribers), 22 large ISPs (with 10,001 to 100,000 subscribers), and 32 medium ISPs (with 1,001 to 10,000 subscribers).1 Telstra commands over 60 percent of the fixed-line broadband market, with TPG, Optus, and Vocus holding smaller shares.2 All four leading ISPs sell NBN connections. As of 2018, Telstra controlled a 53.6 percent share of the mobile service market, followed by Optus with 29.2 percent and Vodafone with 17.2 percent.3

There are a number of smaller ISPs that act as “virtual” providers, maintaining only a retail presence and offering end users access through the network facilities of other companies. These “carriage service providers” do not require a license.4 Larger ISPs that own telecommunications infrastructure, or “carriers,” are required to obtain operating licenses from the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) (see A5). They must also submit to dispute resolution by the independent Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO).5

  • 1Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), “Internet Activity, Australia, June 2017,” September 29, 2017,[email protected]/Lookup/8153.0Main+Features1Jun….
  • 2Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), “Communications Report 2017-18.”
  • 3Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), “Communications Report 2017-18.”
  • 4Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), “Know your obligations: Carriers and carriage service providers, including internet and VoIP service providers,” November 14, 2019,….
  • 5Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), “Know your obligations: Carriers and carriage service providers, including internet and VoIP service providers.”
A5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 4.004 4.004

ACMA is the primary regulator for the broadcasting, internet, and telecommunications sectors.1 Its oversight is generally viewed as fair and independent. ACMA members are formally appointed by the governor general of Australia (who in turn is appointed by the monarch on the recommendation of the prime minister and is advised by the government) for five-year terms.2

Australian ISPs are coregulated under the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) of 1992, which combines regulation by the ACMA with self-regulation by the telecommunications industry.3 The industry’s involvement entails developing industry standards and codes of practice.4 There are more than 30 self-regulatory codes that govern and regulate the country’s ICT sector. ACMA approves self-regulatory codes produced by the Communications Alliance, Australia’s main telecommunications industry body.5

Small businesses and residential customers may file complaints about internet, telephone, and mobile phone services with the TIO,6 which operates a free and independent dispute-resolution mechanism.

The government appointed its first “ambassador for cyber affairs,” Tobias Feakin, in late 2016. Feakin’s role includes advocating for “an open and secure internet.” He is tasked with ensuring that Australia has a strong and consistent stance on international cyber issues.7

B Limits on Content

There are few restrictions on online content in Australia, but some journalists and media outlets have been charged for reporting on the trial of Cardinal George Pell, allegedly in contravention of suppression orders. Misinformation about the 2019–2020 bushfire crisis and about the COVID-19 pandemic proliferated on social media, sometimes causing real-world harms.

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 5.005 6.006

Political and social content is rarely subject to blocking, and communications applications and social media are freely available. However, popular websites that frequently host copyright-infringing material, including Pirate Bay and Kickass Torrents, were blocked by two Federal Court judgments from 2016 and 2017.1 Owners of copyrighted material periodically obtain orders from the Federal Court of Australia blocking copyright-infringing websites. In an April 2020 decision of the Federal Court, orders were made requiring carriage service providers to block a range of copyright-infringing websites, the majority of which are pirate torrenting and streaming websites.2

Although the Australian government did not order any website blocks in the wake of the March 2019 terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand—which was perpetrated by an Australian— several major Australian ISPs temporarily restricted access to 4chan, 8chan, LiveLeak, Voat, ZeroHedge, and other, smaller websites that were believed to be hosting or sharing recordings of the attacker’s live-streamed video.3 Major social media platforms on which the live steam was also being disseminated were not blocked. The ISPs initially acted independently, but they later coordinated with ACMA and other government agencies.4 Critics raised concerns regarding the lack of transparency and oversight of the blockings.5 The restrictions reportedly remained in effect until September 2019, when the Office of the eSafety Commissioner permitted ISPs to undo the blocks on all but eight unspecified websites that “continue to provide access to the video of the Christchurch terrorist attacks or the manifesto of the alleged perpetrator.”6 There was no official, publicly available list of blocked websites. According to news reports, 43 sites were originally blocked.7

In 2018–2019, the eSafety Commissioner deemed over 9,000 items of content online to be prohibited or potentially prohibited, 91 percent of which met the definition of child sexual abuse content. The remaining 9 percent was classified as content that either incited violence or advocated terrorist acts. The eSafety Commissioner reported that if such content was hosted overseas, the agency referred the content to vendors of software filters.8

In November 2019, the Australian government introduced a website blocking scheme, permitting ACMA to request that ISPs block illegal gambling websites under Section 313(3) of the 1997 Telecommunications Act.9 ACMA had requested that ISPs block at least 20 such websites as of June 2020.10

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 2.002 4.004

Online content protected under international human rights standards is generally free from interference by state and nonstate actors. However, the courts sometimes attempt to inhibit publication of defamatory material on large social media platforms and search engines.

In April 2019, Parliament adopted the Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material Act (see B3), which amends the criminal code to enforce the removal of a new category of online content, namely “abhorrent violent material.” The eSafety Commissioner reported that between April and June 2019, it issued four abhorrent and violent material notices to content or hosting services in relation to material provided via their service.1

In its most recent transparency report, covering July to December 2019, Facebook disclosed that it had restricted access to 14 items of content in Australia.2 Of these, five were related to legal injunctions involving online harassment, seven restrictions involved advertisements for unauthorised transport services, and two items were removed on defamation grounds. During the same period, Google responded to 165 content-removal requests made on grounds including bullying and harassment (16 requests), defamation (18 requests), nudity and/or obscenity (23 requests), national security (11 request), copyright (21 requests), suicide promotion (2 requests), hate speech (2 requests) and “privacy and security” (72 requests).3 Google complied with these requests 49 percent of the time. Twitter received four takedown requests in the same period and complied with two.4

Recent court cases involving Google’s search results and autocomplete predictions have sought to clarify how Australia’s defamation laws are applied to online content. In June 2018, the High Court of Australia ruled in favor of Milorad Trkulja in a defamation case against Google.5 Although a lower court had dismissed the case, the High Court agreed with the appellant that autocomplete predictions and image searches related to his name could convey to an ordinary, reasonable person that Trkulja was linked to the criminal underworld.6 The case was expected to return to the Supreme Court of Victoria for trial, though no result from that court had been reported as of the end of the coverage period.7

In an older case involving a breach of confidential information, Twitter was ordered to prevent an offending user from creating any future accounts or posts, with worldwide effect. In 2017, the Supreme Court of New South Wales issued the global injunction against Twitter in relation to a series of tweets published by an anonymous user that revealed confidential information about the plaintiff, an unidentified company. Justice Michael Pembroke, having found that the court possessed the necessary jurisdiction to grant an injunction against Twitter, ordered that the service be restrained from allowing any future publication of the offending material and required to remove any instances of the offending material and any accounts associated with the user in question. Twitter had argued that it would not be feasible to proactively monitor user content, but the court held that Twitter had failed to provide an adequate explanation of this claim and proceeded instead on the assumption that Twitter possessed a content-filtering mechanism.8 Commentators reacted to the decision with some concern, noting that its severity could validate the online censorship practices of undemocratic regional neighbors like China.9

In 2015, the Supreme Court of South Australia found Google liable as a secondary publisher of defamatory content that was initially published by third-party websites and revealed in Google’s search results.10 The court dismissed Google’s appeal of the ruling in 2017.11

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 2.002 4.004

Australia is home to a limited but increasing number of restrictions on the internet. Websites that offer illegal services such as interactive gambling may be blocked or filtered under a narrow but expanding set of circumstances.1 The legal and technical mechanisms by which ISPs filter illegal material have raised some concerns. In 2018, amendments to the criminal code in response to the Christchurch attack introduced an expansive new category of online content that social media companies must remove, while an amendment to the 1968 Copyright Act opened up more avenues for blocking or removing copyright-infringing material.

Concerns persist over ISPs’ blocking of websites that hosted footage of the Christchurch attack. Critics contended that these blocks were not transparent, proportional, or—because they were imposed by private companies instead of the government—appropriate.2 In a public statement, Telstra acknowledged that the blocks “may inconvenience some legitimate users of these sites.” Vodafone issued a similar acknowledgment.3

While ISPs implemented those blocks on their own initiative, the government secured Parliament’s approval in April 2019 for amendments to the criminal code that required ISPs, along with “content service providers,” and “hosting service providers,” to “expeditiously” remove any “abhorrent violent material,” defined as content depicting attempted murder, murder, terrorism, torture, rape, or kidnapping, that is accessible in Australia.4 The Office of the eSafety Commissioner may alert companies to “abhorrent violent material” on their services, and if the companies fail to “expeditiously” remove it, they could be fined AU$10.5 million (US$7.1 million) or 10 percent of their annual revenue. Individuals may be fined AU$2.1 million (US$1.4 million) or imprisoned for up to three years. The law also penalizes companies that fail to notify the Australian Federal Police (AFP) of material depicting “abhorrent violent conduct” occurring in Australia within a reasonable time after they become aware of it. These penalties are subject to appeal. Critics have expressed concern that the new legislation could unreasonably place responsibility on executives and employees for content posted by users, in an industry that is already grappling with the challenges of reviewing the vast amounts of uploaded content.5 Critics also expressed fear that the broad definition of “abhorrent violent material” and the haste with which companies must remove it may lead to disproportionate restrictions.6 The laws were used sparingly in the initial months of validity, with only four notices issued by the eSafety Commissioner between April and June 2019.

Australia’s copyright laws continue to evolve in response to the proliferation of copyright-infringing material online. In December 2018, the Copyright Act was amended to broaden its provisions, for example by allowing blocking injunctions to be extended from sites hosting the material to search-engine providers. In practice, the amendment requires search engines to take reasonable steps to block search results for sites that are subject to blocking injunctions.7 The amendment also allows existing blocking injunctions to be extended to “new domain names associated with the blocked online location” without a new court order.8

Section 313(3) of the 1997 Telecommunications Act allows government agencies to block illegal online services. Following a formal review of the law, the Department of Communications and the Arts published new guidelines on the use of the provision in 2017. The guidelines provide “good practice measures” for agencies to follow, including obtaining authorization from the agency head before disrupting online services, limiting disruptions to instances of serious offenses or national security threats, providing information to the public on uses of Section 313(3), and ensuring that the agency possesses appropriate technical expertise.9

Copyright holders may apply to the Federal Court to request that copyright-infringing websites and services that are located overseas be blocked by Australian ISPs under Section 115A of the Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Act of 2015.10 When making a decision, the court must take into consideration whether the overseas site has a primary purpose of facilitating copyright infringement, whether the response is proportionate, and whether blocking is in the public interest.11

In early 2018, the Department of Communications and the Arts invited feedback on the implementation of the amendment. Most submissions indicated that the new legal regime was effective at reducing piracy and that the court process for injunctions was appropriate.12 Submissions made by digital rights groups, including the Australian Digital Alliance, cautioned against any further amendments to the law that would extend its application beyond ISPs to other intermediaries, or any reduction in judicial oversight of the law’s application.13

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 3.003 4.004

Journalists, commentators, and ordinary internet users generally do not face censorship, so long as their speech does not amount to defamation or breach criminal laws, such as those regulating hate speech or racial vilification.1 Australian defamation laws are widely regarded as among the most favorable to plaintiffs in the world, and fear of defamation suits has driven some self-censorship among both the media and ordinary users (see C2). Legal defenses against defamation that are typically available in other democratic countries, such as the public-interest defense, are difficult to claim in practice, effectively inhibiting the publication of public-interest journalism when there is a risk of defamation accusations.2 According to a survey of journalists published in 2019 by the Australian Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, 80 percent of respondents reported that defamation laws made their jobs more difficult, with a quarter saying that stories they had written were not published due to fears of provoking defamation proceedings.3

In a separate problem, narrowly written orders to suppress coverage of ongoing legal proceedings are often interpreted by the media in an overly broad fashion so as to avoid contempt of court charges.4 Some suppression orders are themselves excessively broad; both types can have a chilling effect on digital reporting. In June 2018, a judge in the state of Victoria imposed a global order suppressing reporting on the trial of Cardinal George Pell to mitigate the risk of a mistrial in a related legal proceeding involving Pell, who was ultimately convicted on sex abuse charges in December of that year. Journalists criticized the suppression order for impeding reporting on a topic of high public importance. Though the order was lifted in February 2019, charges of contempt of court for noncompliance with the order were brought against 19 journalists, 21 publications, and six corporations in May 2020.5 The judge hearing the matter ordered the parties to attempt to resolve the dispute by participating in mediation scheduled to take place in August 2020 .6

B5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 3.003 4.004

Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 as crises related to bushfires and the coronavirus pandemic were exploited via disinformation campaigns, with misinformation reportedly contributing to some Australians’ refusal to receive COVID-19 tests.

The government does not control or manipulate online sources of information to advance any particular political interest.

The online portal of the publicly funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is a major source of news for Australians. Some members of the governing coalition have periodically called for the privatization of the ABC or cuts to its funding;1 commentators have characterized these proposals as a response to perceived left-leaning bias at the outlet. The persistent political pressure on the ABC has raised concerns about the potential impact on its editorial independence.2 The media conglomerate News Corp Australia, which is controlled by Rupert Murdoch and is one of the leading players in the country’s concentrated news media market, is regarded by some observers as editorially biased in favor of the conservative Liberal Party–National Party coalition government.3

Major crises throughout 2019 and 2020 led to significant disinformation campaigns online. Misinformation was rife on social media in relation to the bushfire emergency that affected Australia in late 2019 and early 2020. The online response to the bushfires both reflected and became a source of political polarization, particularly for social media users who denied the effects of climate change in causing the crisis. False claims that the bushfires were predominantly caused by arson rather than climate change were spread widely online, both by real users and by bots.4

Misinformation has persisted online throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Various false claims and conspiracy theories have circulated on social media, including claims that the coronavirus is a hoax or not as severe a threat as is claimed; that the pandemic is linked to the construction of 5G towers; and that immigrants and refugees caused the spread of the virus.5 Online coronavirus disinformation has had real-world effects in Australia. False claims that testing kits were faulty or contaminated reportedly discouraged some people in Melbourne from getting tested for coronavirus.6

Australia’s May 2019 federal elections featured a proliferation of online disinformation spread by domestic political parties. For example, the Liberal Party ran a targeted advertising campaign on Facebook that peddled false claims about the opposition Labor Party’s plans for a “car tax.”7 The Liberal Party denied responsibility for a similar campaign on Facebook that included a fake press release outlining Labor Party plans for a so-called death tax.8 In response to complaints regarding false information disseminated during the election campaign, Facebook representatives told Labor Party officials that the material would not be removed from the platform, but that it would be “demoted,” resulting in fewer views.9

In March 2019, Facebook removed several accounts and pages “purporting to represent political communities in Australia” that originated in North Macedonia and Kosovo.10 Ahead of the federal elections, Facebook temporarily banned non-Australians from taking out campaign ads in an effort to combat foreign interference in the polls.11

According to a 2019 report published by the University of Canberra, Australians’ trust in news accessed through social media has fallen, with 49 percent of news consumers expressing distrust. Trust in the news media in general has also fallen, with 44 percent of respondents generally trusting news sources, a drop from the previous year, and 62 percent of Australians reporting feeling concerned about fake news online. Nevertheless, many Australians access news primarily through social media, with 47 percent of those in their late teens or early 20s using such platforms as their main source of news. By contrast, only 3 percent of news consumers over the age of 73 reported social media as their main source of news.12

B6 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 3.003 3.003

Users are generally free to publish content online without economic or regulatory constraints.

There are no limits on the amount of bandwidth that ISPs can supply, though ISPs are free to adopt internal market practices of traffic shaping, also known as data shaping. The principle of net neutrality is not enshrined in any law or regulation. Some Australian ISPs and mobile service providers practice traffic shaping under what are known as fair-use policies: if a customer uses peer-to-peer file-sharing software, internet connectivity for those activities will be slowed in order to release bandwidth for other applications.1

In April 2020, the government directed the ACCC to develop regulations to require large internet platforms to share advertising revenue with media companies that produce content shared on the platforms.2 In July 2020, after the coverage period, the ACCC released its proposed News Media Bargaining Code. The code would compel large online platforms, starting with Google and Facebook, to begin negotiations with news media companies on payment for use of their content.3 Google and Facebook criticized the proposal, arguing that it would make user data vulnerable and disadvantage independent media and other internet users who are not news publishers.4

B7 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 4.004 4.004

The online landscape is fairly diverse, with content available on an array of topics. Australians have access to a broad selection of online news sources that convey uncensored political and social viewpoints.

However, the online news landscape is influenced by ownership concentration in the print media industry. News Corp accounts for more than half of newspaper circulation in Australia, while Nine (Fairfax Media) also holds a sizeable share.1 News Corp’s is, according to some studies, the country’s most-viewed news website, and the digital versions of News Corp newspapers such as the Australian are also popular.2 Concerns about ownership concentration came to prominence ahead of the May 2019 federal elections. Consistent with News Corp’s historically conservative political orientation, its outlets published content favorable to the incumbent coalition. Some commentators criticized the company’s election coverage as excessively one-sided and lacking in scrutiny of the coalition.3 News Corp outlets have also been assailed for publishing content that is perceived to be supportive of white nationalism and prejudicial toward ethnic minorities.4

The news media landscape suffered as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dozens of small local outlets suspended service, limiting access to print media in some regions, and digital media outlets saw a drop in revenue as news consumers limited their spending.5

The ACCC reported in June 2019 that the rise of digital platforms has undermined the business model of most traditional journalism enterprises and had a particularly profound impact on smaller local news outlets. The commission found that this has resulted in a reduced volume of news production, raising concerns about broader effects on Australian society and democracy.6

Nevertheless, traditional and digital-only news outlets collectively continue to ensure a substantial level of diversity, and this is enhanced by other digital media such as blogs, Twitter feeds, Wikipedia pages, and Facebook groups.7 The publicly funded television station SBS features high-quality news programs in multiple languages, available offline and online, to reflect the cultural diversity found in the country’s population.

B8 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 6.006 6.006

Australians use social media to petition the government and to mobilize for public protest without restrictions. For example, campaigns launched by GetUp!, an independent nonprofit advocacy group that campaigns on left-wing issues, garner significant engagement online. A YouTube video uploaded ahead of a 2017 postal survey on the possibility of legalizing same-sex marriage received more than 16 million views.1 GetUp! utilizes online petitions to raise awareness and gather support for causes such as cracking down on corporate tax avoidance and corruption.2

Social media are sometimes used as a platform to scrutinize government policy. The Juice Media, a small local film company, uses Facebook and YouTube to post a highly popular video series called Honest Government Ads, which satirizes the government and covers topics such as Australia’s climate, immigration, and foreign policies.3

In the wake of mass protests in the United States sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minnesota police officer, Australians mobilized online to organize protests in state capitals against racial injustice, both abroad and as experienced by indigenous Australians.4

A Facebook fundraising campaign started by Australian performer Celeste Barber seeking donations to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service in response to catastrophic bushfires that burned throughout the country in early 2020 went viral, receiving more than AU$50 million ($34 million) in donations.5

C Violations of User Rights

While internet users in Australia are generally free to access and distribute materials online, expression is limited by a number of legal obstacles, such as broadly applied defamation laws and a lack of codified free speech guarantees. In addition, legislative changes in recent years have significantly increased the government’s capacity for surveillance of ICTs, including a law adopted in December 2018 that empowered authorities to access encrypted data. Australian public institutions and businesses are targeted with increasing frequency by state-based cyberattacks, widely thought to originate in China.

C1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 5.005 6.006

Freedom of expression is not an explicitly protected constitutional or statutory right. The High Court has held that there is an implied freedom of political communication in the constitution, but this extends only to the limited context of political discourse during an election period.1 Australians’ rights to access online content and freely engage in online discussions are based less in law than on a shared understanding of the prerequisites for a fair and free society. The public benefits greatly from a culture of freedom of expression and freedom of information that is generally protected by an independent judiciary. The country is also a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Australia has a free press, and journalists are able to report on most topics without restriction. However, ownership concentration limits the diversity of the news media landscape, both for online and traditional journalism (see B7). In addition, whistleblower laws, laws pertaining to defamation, and suppression orders can inhibit reporting (see B4).

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 2.002 4.004

Online activities that are protected under international human rights standards are sometimes subject to criminal penalties in Australia, primarily through the country’s defamation laws. The Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material Act adopted in April 2019 introduced criminal code provisions that could also be applied to such activities (see B3).

Defamation law has been interpreted to favor plaintiffs and is governed by state-level legislation as well as common law principles.1 However, there are several legal defenses against defamation claims, including those of truth, fair reporting on proceedings of public concern, and honest opinion. The majority of defamation cases between 2013 and 2017 involved online defamation, meaning ordinary social media users can find themselves exposed to lawsuits for their remarks.2 The state government of New South Wales announced in June 2018 that it would champion a comprehensive overhaul of defamation law in response to the growing number of social media defamation cases.3 The reform process was still ongoing as of mid-2020, with draft amendments to the Model Defamation Provisions released for public comment in November 2019.4

A person may bring a defamation case to court based on information posted online by someone in another country, provided that the material is accessible in Australia and that the allegedly defamed person enjoys a reputation in Australia. This allows for the possibility of “libel tourism,” in which foreign individuals file defamation cases in Australia against others based outside the country in order to take advantage of its favorable legal environment for plaintiffs. While the United States and the United Kingdom have enacted laws to restrict libel tourism, Australia is not currently considering any such legislation.

In some cases, the courts may grant a permanent injunction to prevent the publication of defamatory material, though this remedy is limited to cases involving a high risk that the defamation will continue.5

C3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 5.005 6.006

There have been a number of high-profile lawsuits involving online defamation in recent years, with defendants including members of the professional press as well as ordinary social media users. Observers warn that the financial penalties involved are punitive and could deter investigative reporting and free speech (see B4). In 2017, rulings favored the plaintiff in 43 percent of digital defamation cases, and courts awarded plaintiffs AU$100,000 (US$68,000) or more in seven suits.1

In a precedent-setting decision, a New South Wales Supreme Court judge ruled in June 2019 that media companies are liable for defamatory comments posted by third parties on their social media pages. In June 2020, after the coverage period, the New South Wales Court of Appeal dismissed an appeal brought by the media companies found liable for defamation.2

In another recent case, actress Rebel Wilson was awarded AU$600,000 (US$405,000) in damages in June 2018 (reduced on appeal from an initial award of more than AU$4.7 million), after a court found that online and print articles published by the magazine Women’s Day had defamed Wilson. The articles in question suggested that the actress was a serial liar and untrustworthy.3

Personal disputes between individuals on social media have also led to successful defamation litigation. In May 2020, a Sydney man was awarded AU$35,000 (US$24,000) for damages caused by a post in a Facebook group accusing him of being a stalker and a danger to women.4

C4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 2.002 4.004

Individuals do not need to register to use the internet, and there are no restrictions on anonymous communications. However, verified identification information is required to purchase any prepaid mobile service.1 Additional personal information must be submitted to a mobile service provider before a phone can be activated. All recorded information is stored while the service remains activated, and it may be accessed by law enforcement and emergency agencies with a valid warrant.2

In December 2018, Parliament passed the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act, which gives intelligence and security agencies the power to compel ”communications providers” to change or break their own encryption technology upon request in order to facilitate access to user data (see C6).3 The law prohibits assistance that would undermine encryption or security for users at large, but critics have noted that, in practice, it is difficult (and in some cases impossible) to enable authorities’ access to one user’s data without creating exploitable vulnerabilities that could affect others.4

In March 2020, the government introduced the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (International Production Orders) Bill 2020. The bill would establish a new legal framework to access overseas communication data for law enforcement and national security purposes, facilitating access to encrypted communications provided by non-Australian companies.5

C5 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 2.002 6.006

The government has expanded its surveillance and data-gathering capabilities in recent years. The Assistance and Access law adopted in December 2018 represents the latest such expansion. The Guardian reported in July 2019 that the AFP and state police in New South Wales had issued five requests to access encrypted user data under the law in March, April, and May of that year.1 The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the country’s domestic intelligence service, has also employed the new legislation. These requests are subject to judicial oversight.

While the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) grants some privacy protections, it does not provide individuals with remedies for privacy breaches, regardless of whether the state or nonstate actors are responsible.2 In 2017, Australia’s Federal Court clarified that metadata do not qualify as personal information and are therefore not subject to statutory protections, further narrowing the scope of the Privacy Act.3 Law enforcement agencies no longer require a warrant to access metadata under the 2015 Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act (see C6).

In April 2020, the government developed and launched COVIDSafe, an app designed to assist authorities with contact-tracing efforts.4 Downloading the app, which uses Bluetooth contact-chaining with encrypted and anonymized identifiers, is not mandatory. Collected data identifiers are stored securely on the user’s device for a period of 21 days.

After the opposition and independent regulators raised concerns about data collection via the app, Parliament passed legislation5 specifying that data collected through COVIDSafe can only be used for COVID-19 contact-tracing purposes. The law makes it illegal for any person to force or coerce another person to download the app against their will. It does not mandate retention limits for data collected by COVIDSafe, nor does it specify a date for the app to sunset.6

The Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), Australia’s cyber-intelligence agency, confirmed in March 2020 that it had spied on Australian citizens in the past year. While the ASD typically conducts surveillance of targets outside of Australia, the agency confirmed that it had, in an unspecified number of cases involving “rare circumstances,” obtained ministerial approval to conduct domestic surveillance.7

In 2014, Parliament enacted amendments to national security legislation that increased penalties for whistleblowers and potentially allow intelligence agents to monitor an entire network with a single warrant. In particular, a new section (35P) added to the 1979 Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Act included provisions that threaten journalists and whistleblowers with a 10-year prison term if they publish classified information related to special intelligence operations.8 Section 35P was subsequently amended to offer some protections to journalists.9 Other worrying amendments to the ASIO Act included changes to the scope of warrants; notably, the definition of “computer” was broadened to allow authorities to access data on multiple networked computers with a single warrant.

The incorporation of mass surveillance into ordinary policing has emerged as a new concern. An ABC investigation revealed that Queensland police used facial-recognition technology at the 2018 Commonwealth Games for general policing, as opposed to “high priority” targets, even though Queensland law only allows mass surveillance operations to identify suspects of serious crimes. Civil liberties advocates, who denounced the generalized use of the technology as “scope creep,” criticized Queensland police for failing to be transparent about the operation.10

Privacy concerns have also been raised in response to the launch of online databases and data-sharing initiatives. In 2017, the government announced the creation of a national facial biometric database that would make driver’s license photographs and other images of citizens available across government departments. Critics characterized the move as a serious privacy violation to which citizens did not consent when they originally provided their photographs.11

Another initiative facing significant criticism from privacy groups, as well as parts of the medical community, is the government’s My Health Record, a database system created under a 2012 law that automatically generates a digital summary of citizens’ key health information. Amendments were enacted in December 2018 to address privacy concerns, requiring a court order before My Health Record data can be released to the police or government agencies.12 However, concerns persist regarding the security of the data, especially because almost a million medical practitioners have access to the system, increasing the risk of breaches.13 The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, Australia’s privacy regulator, reported in November 2019 that it had been notified of 35 data breaches related to the My Health Record database, involving the records of at least 65 people (see C8).14

C6 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 3.003 6.006

Technology companies have become more involved in state surveillance in recent years, thanks largely to the Assistance and Access law adopted in December 2018. The law gives Australia’s intelligence and security agencies the power to compel ”communications providers” to undermine their own encryption technology in order to obtain user data.1 It allows these agencies to issue requests for encrypted data under a broad set of circumstances, including for the purpose of safeguarding the country’s national security, foreign relations, or economic well-being. Requests may also be issued for the purpose of enforcing criminal law.

According to the Department of Home Affairs, tech companies were issued “Technical Assistance Requests” under the new law on seven occasions between July 2018 and June 2019. These are voluntary requests for the companies to use existing capabilities to assist requesting agencies access user information. While the Assistance and Access law allows relevant agencies to compel tech companies to comply, including with requests to build capabilities into products to facilitate access, no such compulsory requests were issued in the reporting period.2

Rights groups have criticised the Assistance and Access law’s broad reach, relative lack of oversight, and harsh penalties. Opponents have also raised concerns about its potentially stifling effect on the country’s technology sector, as local companies could be forced to create products that are less secure than those of their foreign competitors.3 Companies that fail to cooperate could face fines of up to AU$10 million (US$6.8 million), while individuals could face prison time. The Department of Home Affairs maintains that the Assistance and Access law is necessary and that it will operate with sufficient oversight to prevent abuse. All requests for assistance are overseen by various Commonwealth bodies, depending on the requesting agency. Organizations subject to a request for assistance have the right to complain or appeal to the relevant oversight body for the requesting agency, and technical capability notices—which require the recipient to change or break their own encryption technology—must be issued by the attorney general and approved by the minister for communications.4

Law enforcement agencies with a lawful warrant may search and seize computers. They may also compel ISPs to intercept and store data from individuals suspected of committing a crime, as governed by the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 (TIAA). It is prohibited for ISPs and similar entities, acting on their own, to monitor and disclose the content of communications without the customer’s consent.5 Unlawful collection of a communication and disclosure of its content can draw both civil and criminal sanctions.6 The TIAA and TA explicitly authorize a range of disclosures, including to specified law enforcement and tax agencies. ISPs are currently able to monitor their networks without a warrant for “network protection duties,” such as curtailing malicious software and spam.7

The Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act 2015 requires telecommunication companies to store two years’ worth of customer metadata.8 Telecommunications companies were required to update their technology so as to be compliant with the law by April 2017, receiving a substantial grant from the government to assist with the process.9 That month, the government confirmed that metadata would not be available for use in civil cases.10

In its most recent annual report, the Department of Home Affairs reported that 297,000 authorisations were issued to access retained data between 2018 and 2019. The data was largely used by state police forces for investigative purposes.11

The 2015 legislation added extra privacy protections for journalists, requiring security agencies to obtain a warrant before accessing journalists’ metadata. However, incidents of unauthorized access have undermined faith in these safeguards.12

In October 2019, the government disclosed that law enforcement had sought 1,252 warrants for stored communications under the TIAA between July 2018 and June 2019. Law enforcement agencies also made 295,691 authorizations for the disclosure of historical metadata and 27,824 authorizations for ongoing metadata collection, which were in force for a total of 832,674 days. The AFP sought six warrants for metadata disclosure for the purpose of identifying journalists’ sources.13

The data collection practices of technology firms have also come under scrutiny. Following revelations that Cambridge Analytica had improperly accessed the data of Facebook users, including more than 300,000 Australians, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) launched an investigation into the matter in April 2018. The OAIC initiated a civil suit against Facebook in March 2020, alleging that the company breached Australian privacy laws by disclosing Australian users’ personal information to a third party. According to the OAIC, this increased the risk of such disclosure to additional third parties, including Cambridge Analytica and other political profiling operations.14 The OAIC seeks declaratory relief and civil penalties under the Privacy Act, which can entail fines of up to AU$1,700,000 (US$1,150,000) for each serious or repeated interference in a person’s privacy.15

C7 1.00-5.00 pts0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 5.005 5.005

Violence against online commentators is rare in Australia. Controversial figures are occasionally subject to intimidation and death threats.

In a widely criticized move, the AFP raided the offices of the ABC and the home of a journalist in June 2019. The raids came in response to the broadcaster’s publication in 2017 of the “Afghan Files,” a series of stories based on leaked documents that focused on misconduct and unlawful killings by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. The AFP presented a warrant before entering ABC premises and searched through files relating to the stories, which appeared on the ABC’s website.1

In a separate June 2019 incident, the AFP raided the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst in response to a story she wrote the previous year regarding leaked plans to expand the government’s spying powers. The warrant gave the AFP permission to search Smethurst’s home, computer, and phone as part of their investigation into the alleged publication of classified material.2

In April 2020, the High Court of Australia ruled that warrant relied upon by the AFP in the Smethurst raid was invalid, as it lacked basic details about the nature of the alleged offense. Although the High Court declined to prohibit the evidence produced by the search from use by prosecutors,3 the AFP subsequently confirmed that it would not pursue charges against Smethurst.4

The media industry and civil society denounced these raids as a disturbing threat to press freedom that undermined reporting on national security and defense matters.5

The eSafety commissioner recorded an increase in reports of cyber-abuse on social media platforms during the coverage period, with a 204 percent increase in complaints in 2018–2019 compared to 2017–2018. The majority of victims were women. In the same period, the eSafety commissioner recorded a substantial increase in reports of image-based abuse, which includes the nonconsensual sharing of intimate images, with 950 reports received, compared to 259 in the previous period.6

C8 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 1.001 3.003

Cyberattacks and hacking incidents remain a common concern, though they generally target larger institutions and have not been widely used to censor online speech or punish government critics. Public figures and public institutions continue to be targeted by cyberattacks suspected to originate from China.

Australian public institutions and businesses were targeted by a large-scale coordinated cyberattack in June 2020, after the coverage period. Though the government did not specify the source of the attack, Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated that a sophisticated state-based actor was behind the attack, prompting strong suspicions that China was responsible.1

In May 2020, the office of West Australian premier Mark McGowan was targeted in an attempted attack using malware that had previously been traced to hackers linked to the Chinese government . It remains unclear whether any information was compromised as a result of the attack.2 Earlier, in February 2019, the government announced that the computer networks of Parliament and major political parties, including the Labor, Liberal, and National Parties had been subjected to malicious activity.3 The incident was blamed on a ”sophisticated state actor,” which Prime Minister Morrison declined to name.4 Public suspicion fell on China, but the Chinese government dismissed the notion as “baseless.”5 In September 2019, Australian intelligence reportedly came to the conclusion that China’s Ministry of State Security was behind the attack.6

In August 2019, a cyberattack targeting a financial institution compromised bank details and personal information of over 90,000 Australians, though a spokesperson said that the compromised information could not be used to make financial transactions.7

These attacks followed several notable attacks affecting Australians in the previous coverage period. A September 2018 breach at the international hotel company Marriott was attributed to Chinese intelligence services.8 Hackers based in China breached the Australian National University’s computer systems in both July 2019 and May 2019;9 the latter resulted in the theft of 200,000 people’s personal data.10

In June 2018, PageUp, an online platform used in the recruitment and hiring process by major Australian employers, reported a breach in its network that may have given access to the personal information of job applicants, staff members, and others to an unauthorized third party.11

The Australian Cyber Security Center (ACSC) reported in April 2018 that about 400 Australian businesses had been targeted, though without any theft of data, in the previous year by cyberattacks that were believed to have been initiated by the Russian government, possibly in preparation for more disruptive future attacks.12

A notifiable data breach scheme came into effect in February 2018, requiring businesses and government organizations to notify users if their information was compromised in a data breach that could result in serious harm to the users.13 The OAIC reported in March 2019 that in the scheme’s first year of operation, 964 data breaches were reported, mostly involving malicious or criminal acts, and frequently targeting the finance and health industries.14

On Australia

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  • Global Freedom Score

    95 100 free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    76 100 free
  • Freedom in the World Status

  • Networks Restricted

  • Websites Blocked

  • Pro-government Commentators

  • Users Arrested