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Australia’s Online Law: What You Need To Know

The internet offers many avenues for young people to express themselves in different ways. A good digital citizen communicates clearly, respectfully and honestly when online.

Australia has a tradition of robust debate and freedom of political speech, but there are no explicit laws that establish a general freedom of expression. Most online forums and social media platforms are run by private organisations, and include some restrictions on permitted speech in their terms and conditions. There are some clearly established exceptions to free speech in law – Youth Law Australia has a good overview of defamation law. Making and distributing personal recordings can be illegal, and some online speech can be classified as cyberbullying.

Online speech and the law

Cyberbullying

Using technology to bully someone is called cyberbullying. There are lots of resources for supporting victims of cyberbullying – some good places to start are the eSafety Commissioner cyberbullying help page and Youth Law Australia’s overview of the law around bullying.

Defamation

Defamation is defined as the act of damaging the good reputation of someone, slander or libel.

Defamation law was set up to protect reputations. You may have been defamed if someone posts something false about you that would cause the average person to think less of you. If you believe someone is defaming you online, you should try to collect as much evidence as possible (like screenshots of the defamatory material).

Youth Law Australia goes into more detail about defamation law in NSW, as well as steps you can take if you think you have been defamed.

Photos, videos and the law

Most mobile devices are capable of recording images, conversations and video, so it is important to be aware of the laws around privacy, recording and personal images. In general, it is important to make sure that you have permission from other people before you record a conversation with or take photos of them. This applies even if you are involved in the conversation or are in the photo yourself.

The law around taking photos and making recordings depends partly on where you are, especially if you are in a public or private space. It also depends on who you are recording or taking photos of, and the nature of the recordings or photos. Just asking for intimate images might be considered a crime in some states and territories, depending on who is being asked.

If someone has shared an image or recording of you without your permission, the eSafety Commissioner site has a guide to responding to image-based abuse.

Youth Law Australia has a more detailed breakdown of the law around photos and recordings.

Using technology in schools – your rights and responsibilities

In order to ensure that all students and teachers in public schools can be provided with safe, secure and quality access to the internet, the NSW Department of Education expects all staff and students to understand and abide by the Online Communications Services: Acceptable usage policy.

We want to support our students when they’re at school by offering them safe, secure and quality access to the internet. The NSW Department of Education’s policy for Online Communication Services: acceptable usage for school students outlines the rights and responsibilities for staff and students whenever they are using the internet at a school or other Department of Education location.

What is the Acceptable Usage Policy?

Did you know that you agree to the Acceptable Usage policy every time you log in to a computer or laptop that’s managed by the Department of Education?

If you’ve ever logged into a Department of Education computer, you may have spotted the notice that appears just before you log in. Some of you may have even skipped right past without realising what it means.

That notice is a friendly reminder about your rights and responsibilities when using technology or infrastructure that is managed by the NSW Department of Education. This means whenever you log in to a school computer or connect to a school’s wireless network, you are agreeing to follow the expectations of acceptable behaviour set out by the policy.

Teachers can read the policy on the NSW Department of Education’s Online Communication Services: Acceptable usage for school students on the department intranet.

For students

Students have a right to expect secure access to the internet and selected online services as a part of their education. Access to the internet and online communication services are provided for the exclusive purpose of research, learning and communication between students and staff.

Students have a responsibility to report inappropriate behaviour and material to their teacher. Internet and online communication services are provided with virus protection, web filtering and other safeguards, and students must not attempt to disable or defeat these protections. Students must not share passwords or use another person’s account.

As long as a student is on school grounds, the Acceptable Usage policy makes it clear that all connections to the internet must be conducted through NSW Department of Education networks. Students are in breach of the policy if they connect to the internet through their mobile phone’s data connection or any other external network. In addition to this, the 2019 review into the use of mobile phones in schools has recommended that students be banned from using mobile phones during school time in primary schools. For secondary students, the decision to ban or allow mobile phones lies with the school. Talk to your school’s principal if you would like more information about your rights and responsibilities when it comes to using mobile phones in your school.

Students should also be aware that all their emails and web searching history are kept for two years and that these records can be used in school investigations, court proceedings and for other legal reasons.

For parents

From as early as primary school, students and parents are often asked to sign a note that outlines the expectations for using the internet at school. These internet permission notes are the school-level procedure, based on the department-wide policy, and acknowledge the school’s expectations for acceptable behaviour. It is important that you have a discussion with your child before signing their permission note.

If a student has not returned the note, their school account is changed so that they cannot access the internet at school.

If you are a volunteer at the school and need internet access as a part of this role, you will need your own Department of Education guest account. Using another person’s account to access the internet from a school network is a breach of the Acceptable usage policy, regardless of the account or the intended purpose.

Your school’s principal can help you apply for a guest account. Please ask them to complete the Network Guest Account Request for Schools form on your behalf. You will need to provide a current Working With Children Check number.

The 2019 review into the use of mobile phones in schools has recommended that mobile phones be banned for primary students during school times. Mobile phones are allowed outside of school hours, and for students in high school the decision to ban or allow phones is left to that school’s principal. Consider talking to your child’s principal to learn more about how the school has responded to this review in mobile phones.

For teachers

It is a good idea to talk through the Acceptable Usage policy with your students, and work with them to draw links between policy, classroom expectations and school rules. Your students can co-create the expectations in your classroom, and the consequences that happen when the expectations aren’t met.

If you suspect that a student may have breached the Acceptable Usage policy, the student could be liable to consequences as set out in your school’s Behaviour Management Plan. In addition to in-school consequences, students who breach the policy could have their internet access revoked by your school’s Principal or delegated ICT Coordinator.

Talk to your Principal or Supervisor for more advice on how to apply the Acceptable Usage policy.

Teachers and principals should also be aware of the 2019 review into the use of mobile phones in schools. Mobile phones are banned during school hours for primary students. For secondary students, it is up to the school’s principal to decide whether your school will ban or allow mobile phones during school time.

For principals and school executive

Consider the following questions:

  • How does your school’s behaviour management plan align with the department’s acceptable usage policy?
  • How would you determine the severity of a breach of the policy?
  • How would you gather evidence of a breach?
  • What are appropriate consequences for a breach?

If you are not sure how to answer these questions, it might be helpful to review your school’s behaviour management plan.

Your school’s behaviour management plan already instructs teachers in how to identify and respond to inappropriate behaviour in the classroom and the playground. Inappropriate behaviour online can be treated in similar ways to other inappropriate in-school behaviours. Teachers will feel more confident embedding technology into their teaching and learning if they can rely on consistent school procedures.

Principals can request access to the student’s web search logs or archived emails through EdConnect. Students who are found to have breached the Acceptable Usage policy can have their internet access revoked, at the Principal’s discretion.

Teachers and principals should also be aware of the 2019 review into the use of mobile phones in schools. Mobile phones are banned during school hours for primary students. For secondary students, it is up to the school’s principal to decide whether your school will ban or allow mobile phones during school time.

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About Author

Jonny has spent the last 10 years in youth work, speaking and interviewing counsellors on best practices.

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