"It's become my life's work": MECCA M-POWER in conversation with eSafety Commissioner
Julie Inman Grant

Words by Life at MECCA M-POWER
Friday 1 December 2023

ICYMI: We’re currently in the midst of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence - an annual international campaign that kicked off on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (November 25). The online safety of women and girls is something the MECCA M-Power team is extremely passionate about, so who better to chat with than eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant?

Becoming the eSafety Commissioner wasn’t a planned career choice for Inman Grant. “There was no Internet when I started working at the intersection of technology, policy and social justice for my hometown Congressman in Washington DC,” she says.  “I refer to that period in the 90s as ‘tech policy ground zero’ because there were only a handful of us working on the issue at the time. While they say to a certain degree that you make your own luck, I was in the right place at the right time both in D.C. and then here in Sydney when the opportunity came up for me to take on the role of eSafety Commissioner.” Inman Grant notes that she felt as though she had done as much as she could from the ‘inside’ of the major companies to make them care about safety - so she decided to follow her passion about promoting online safety and seven years in, she says serving as eSafety Commissioner has become “her life’s work.”

Inman Grant is really writing the book for how governments should be thinking about keeping their citizens safe online. She says that she’s currently focused on wielding new systemic powers to ensure companies take steps to detect, disrupt and remove some of the most horrific and harmful online material: child sexual abuse and pro-terror material. “In the last year, we've also taken some very bold steps towards targeting the most powerful technology companies in the world and holding them to account,” she says. “The global tech giants are noticing – and they are pushing back.”

“Our research shows 75% of Australian adults experienced at least one negative online incident in the past year – a 30% increase from 2019.”

- Julie Inman Grant, eSafety Commissioner

One would imagine that younger people are the primary cohort of people affected by violence or bullying online. We asked Inman Grant whether this is true, or a fallacy. “While we know the impact of online abuse is likely to be much more profound on children and young people compared to adults, this is not an issue confined to youth,” she says. “Our research shows 75% of Australian adults experienced at least one negative online incident in the past year – a 30% increase from 2019. Unwanted or inappropriate content, offensive name-calling, and misuse of personal information topped the list.” For children and young people, the eSafety Commission’s research shows almost half have been treated in a “hurtful or nasty way online.” “However, we are seeing younger and younger children reporting abuse to the cyberbullying scheme and it’s a concerning trend,” Inman Grant observes.

In terms of helping to guide and counsel children on how to stay safe and healthy online, Inman Grant suggests regular, honest conversation about your children’s online experiences as the starting point. “I weave questions about my children’s online lives into dinner-table discussions about friends, school and sports,” she advises. And Inman Grant suggests going beyond the explicit threats, like bad language or bullying, to understand the subtler influences that can shape their desires and thoughts. “For example, online influencers and the design of algorithms can influence your child’s choices, even their sense of self. From ‘needing’ to have that expensive make-up that their favourite TikTok influencer is pushing, to much darker, subtler issues, like negative body image and thoughts of self-harm.”

On keeping herself safe online, Inman Grant says it’s not easy. “Like many women in a position of public authority, I cop a lot of abuse. I use conversation controls and, sometimes, a little self-restraint. There are times I really want to respond but blocking, muting or ignoring are more effective strategies.” She observes that “the common goal of perpetrators is to question your competence, to undermine your confidence, to cause you to self-censor or to drive you out of online spaces altogether. We cannot let that happen. We need to continue promoting and protecting female voices online.”

As part of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence, the eSafety Commission has launched the ‘Love is’ campaign to help Australians recognise tech-based coercive control in relationships. “This form of abuse, which uses digital technologies to control and manipulate someone, is not widely understood,” Inman Grant says. “Our campaign aims to highlight the warning signs, such as forced sharing of location data or restrictions over online posts. ‘Love is’ will help us reinforce what love isn’t and how insidious tech-facilitated abuse can be.” For help spotting the warning signs of tech-based coercive control, check out details of the Love Is campaign here.