Julie Inman Grant, an advocate for online safety and ethical technologies

Interview by Amélie Rives

As the Australian eSafety Commissioner, Julie Inman Grant leads the world’s first government regulator committed to keeping its citizens safer online. Compassionate and determined, she strives to bring more ethics and humanity to technologies.

Promoting safer, more virtuous technologies

I didn’t know that I would be fascinated with technology and its impact on humanity when I started my career in the US Congress.” But her first job as Legislative Assistant for her hometown Congressman set the tone. “I worked at the intersection of technology, policy, safety and social justice” before being recruited as one of Microsoft’s first lobbyists in Washington, DC. Two decades working in senior public policy and safety roles in the tech industry only reinforced her convictions and her commitment. “Whether at Microsoft, Twitter or Adobe, my focus has always been on harnessing the benefits of technology and minimising the risks (…). 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”.

Promoting safe and ethical technologies has been a motivation and a driving force in her career, and is at the heart of her role as Australia’s eSafety Commissioner. “We’re all preoccupied with the big questions of ‘How do you tame the tech giants?’ and ‘How do you compel more transparency and accountability?’ (…). We’ve got to move mindfully and put the fundamental building blocks of safety, privacy and security in place.” In many ways, she feels she’s on a mission to make a difference and to push boundaries on these issues: “Few of us have an opportunity to really make a mark on the world. My contribution might only be a very small mark, but this job has been an absolute privilege and an honour.” But also a responsibility, and a challenge, too.

Fostering transformational changes

Taking over this new role, she had a clear vision of what she wanted to achieve, but also a good understanding of what her mission would require, and the obstacles ahead. “I knew what sort of culture and ethos I wanted to create. To be a successful regulator, we needed to be nimble, innovative and we needed to understand how the industry thought.” This required bringing about deep organisational and cultural changes. “I started bringing in people from banks, telcos and technology companies, which brought about a little bit of a ‘clash of civilizations’ with some of the more traditional public servants.” 6 years on “we have a world-class team of innovators, investigators and educators who can cut through on these important, complex issues.”

This new culture also relies on strong human values. “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.” In particular, she believes in empathy, compassion and dedication. “When (people) come to us, we try and make sure that they feel comfortable, and that they don’t feel shame or embarrassed.”

Battles and fights ahead

My biggest concern today is the growing volume of self-produced child abuse material. It’s horrifying that children are being coerced and manipulated into creating this material.

The eSafety Commissioner started in 2015 as the “Children’s eSafety Commissioner”, and the fight against online risks and harms faced by children is still among its top priorities. In addition to the education initiatives and resources available on the website, they recently established an “eSafety Youth Council” and supported its members to write an open letter to Big Tech to raise their safety concerns.

Holding tech giants and the digital industry to account is still one of the biggest challenges: they are part of the problem, not yet fully part of the solution. “We recently issued a world-first report that showed wide disparities in how quickly leading technology companies are responding to user reports of child sexual exploitation and abuse on their services. For Snap, it was an average time of four minutes. For Microsoft, it was two days – which extended to 19 days when the report needed re-review (…) We also discovered that Apple and Microsoft do not attempt to proactively detect child abuse material stored in their widely used iCloud and OneDrive services, despite the availability of PhotoDNA detection technology. It is disappointing.”

But not discouraging. Determined to tame the tech giants, she keeps on intensifying the pressure. Under the Australian Basic Online Safety Expectations, part of the Online Safety Act 2021, the eSafety Commissioner served legal notices to Twitter, TikTok and Google in February 2023, requiring them to answer questions about how they are tackling online child sexual abuse and the role their algorithms might be playing in amplifying seriously harmful content. “The creation, dissemination and viewing of online child sexual abuse inflicts incalculable trauma and ruins lives. It is also illegal. It is vital that tech companies take all the steps they reasonably can to remove this material from their platforms and services.” Companies which do not respond within 35 days could face penalties of almost AU $700,000 a day.

The relationship with tech companies also translates into public-private collaboration. The eSafety Commissioner launched “Safety by Design” in 2018, an initiative that involved closely working with industry, to help companies minimise online threats by anticipating, detecting and eliminating online harms before they occur.This approach focuses on embedding safety into the culture and leadership of these organisations, and aims to foster more positive, rewarding online experiences for everyone. The results are promising: “These tools have been accessed across the world and it’s exciting that Safety by Design is building momentum and helping to shape what the metaverse will look like and even being applied to generative AI.”

Further together

We’ve really seen Safety by Design take off. It was mentioned by the US President in the State of the Union address, it’s part of the UK Online Safety Bill and it’s being talked about widely across Europe”.

Because these issues require global mobilisation, Julie Inman Grant has placed international cooperation and partnerships at the heart of her approach. In 2022, she launched the “Global Online Safety Regulators Network” with the UK, Fijian and Irish regulators to share information and best practices to support harmonised, coordinated approaches to online safety issues. “I am excited to share the things we do well, while also helping others to learn from our mistakes.” A leader in online safety, Australia is willing to share its experiences and expertise globally. “Australia is far away and our population is relatively small. But I feel that people in Europe, the US and Canada are listening to us and are watching our experience, and that’s very encouraging.”

But many more positive changes are yet to come. “I think there’s this feeling that we’re reaching a global tipping point with the implementation of the EU’s Digital Safety Act and a growing online safety movement in the UK, US and in Canada. More and more governments are saying: ‘Enough is enough. We need to take action.’”