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Managing the risk of cyber-bullying

6.1 Making expectations clear to clients

Agencies who publish client service charters often take a proactive approach by making clear their expectations of clients. For example, agencies might provide a statement about the way the agency will treat clients in all dealings, including online, and may also include a statement that sets out how the agency expects clients to treat its employees—e.g. with respect and courtesy. Agencies may wish to update their service charters to make clear that these expectations extend to any online communications.

6.2 Less personalised service delivery

Agencies may need to consider a less personalised approach, where necessary, to service delivery, in which APS employees are not identified by name, and where emails to agency clients come from a generic mailbox rather than a personal address. It may be appropriate for agencies to divert offensive emails to a single source to minimise the impact on staff.

Depending on its business or client base, agencies will need to exercise judgement in this regard, noting the need to balance professional and efficient service delivery with the need to ensure the safety and well-being of employees.

6.3 Managing online presence

Agencies engaging in social media should have a moderation policy in place that sets out the agency's terms of use for the website, blog, Facebook page, etc., and the steps the agency will take to ensure that posts are consistent with those terms (such as publishing posts only after they have been checked by agency staff). Agencies should train relevant staff on moderation procedures.

Agencies should also encourage employees to manage their personal online presence—for example, by encouraging them to consider whether to include personal information such as names and contact details (including personal mobile phone numbers) in communicating with the public. It may also be appropriate for employees to consider removing personal online details and public photos to protect themselves from malicious attacks using their personal information.

6.4 Notifying internet service providers or hosts of websites

Where a comment has been made online that is offensive or threatening, or which contains personal information about an employee, it may be appropriate to notify the internet service provider or the host of the website or the social media platform on which the comment has been posted. Agencies should view the 'acceptable use' guidelines (or terms and conditions) provided by the internet service provider, website or social media platform first, so that they know whether the comment breaches its policies. Agencies can escalate issues with the service provider and request that they remove the inappropriate content, or at least the names of agency employees, citing the service provider's policies where relevant.

While there is no guarantee that the service provider will remove the inappropriate content—especially if the website is hosted overseas—it may still be important to bring these matters to their attention. Among other things, should the matter escalate, this will allow agencies to provide evidence of the steps taken to try to resolve the matter.

The Cooperative Arrangement for Complaints Handling on Social Networking Sites agreed to by companies such as Facebook, Google (YouTube), Yahoo!, and Microsoft, provides information on the complaints handling approaches of many social networking sites.

In addition, the Department of Communications has developed the Easy Guide to Socialising Online, which provides information about the cybersafety features of different sites, including social networking sites, search engines, and online games. This is a helpful tool that provides information about privacy settings and how to report cyber-bullying and inappropriate content on the sites listed in the guide.

6.5 Legal remedies

Legal remedies may be available depending on the circumstances, and particularly in situations of apprehended or actual violence, threats, intimidation, stalking, or other unlawful conduct by members of the public. In many cases it will be appropriate to pursue other mechanisms first, but, should these fail, legal remedies may be available under Commonwealth statutes, including the:

Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth)

Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth); in particular, sections:

  • 147.1—Causing harm to a Commonwealth public official
  • 147.2—Threatening to cause harm to a Commonwealth public official
  • 149.1—Obstruction of Commonwealth public official (including intimidation)
  • 474.14—Using a telecommunications network with intention to commit a serious offence
  • 474.15—Using a carriage service to make a threat (to kill or cause serious harm to another person)
  • 474.16—Using a carriage service for a hoax threat
  • 474.17—Using a carriage service to menace, harass, or cause offence

Mechanisms may also be available to agencies and employees under state criminal laws, including laws relating to stalking, or under other laws relating to protection or apprehended violence orders, privacy, and discrimination.

Agencies may assist employees to obtain a restraining order, institute other legal proceedings, and to defend actions brought against them for reasons related to their employment, where the employee has acted reasonably and responsibly. Such assistance must be consistent with Appendix E of the Legal Services Directions 2005, which states:

Assistance to employees as plaintiffs

19. Except in the case of actions for defamation, expenditure to assist an employee to institute proceedings in a matter arising from their employment may be approved where this is in the interests of the Commonwealth. For example, it may be appropriate to assist an employee to seek a restraining order against a person arising from alleged harassment in the workplace.

20. Expenditure is not to be approved to assist an employee to institute proceedings for defamation arising in the course of the performance of their duties (either for representation or the payment of legal costs). Similarly, assistance is not to be provided for any other action relating to alleged defamation, such as assistance to uphold a person's reputation, legally challenge comments damaging to a person's reputation, or in obtaining an apology (as distinct from a letter merely seeking to correct the record). The policy is the same even if the employee offers to pay to the Commonwealth any damages which they may receive. (Funding defamation proceedings could give rise to a public perception that the Government was seeking to prevent legitimate criticism.)

If an agency does not provide an APS employee with assistance to institute proceedings, the employee nevertheless has the same rights as other members of the community to pursue legal action privately, although they should be advised to seek legal advice before pursuing this course of action.