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What to do if you are being harassed online

Online harassment can be devastating for women, particularly because women are more likely than men to be violently sexually harassed online. In the moment, it can be difficult to remember that there are options available and places women can go to report harassment. This step-by-step guide outlines some of the legal steps you can take when you are being or have been harassed online.

We were funded by the Victorian Women’s Trust grants program to develop a legal resource for women to access when they have been harassed and wish to pursue their legal options. We have worked with partners at the Women’s Legal Service and law firms Maurice Blackburn and Doogue and George to develop this resource.

Disclaimer
The material on the website is provided for general information and educative purposes in summary form on legal topics which is current when it is first published. The content does not constitute legal advice or recommendations and should not be relied upon as such. Appropriate legal advice should be obtained in actual situations.

Cybersmart Women

If you are being harassed online you should record or take a notes about the incidents as they occur. These documents can be important evidence should you choose to report or seek advice on the conduct.

Use the attached note template as a guide of the information that is useful when recording online harassment. The best time to document the event is immediately after it has occurred.

You can record harassment by:

  • Taking screenshots of comments and messages
    • Include the contact details of the sender (such as mobile numbers): these images are helpful in case comments are deleted and the contact details of the sender will then be available to be independently verified by telecommunication services if need be.
  • Third party verification of the social media identity of the sender (e.g. information from you or a friend or other third party that confirms the identity of the sender’s profile).
  • Sending emails to yourself which record what has happened. These emails will be timestamped and provide a record of when the events occurred.
  • Writing diary entries of what happened and the effect on you. Any evidence about the effect on you may be relevant for future legal claims. Try to include as much context as you can.
  • Doctor’s records that note the harassment and effect on your health can also be important. It is most useful when records are from the same time, so do not delay in seeking professional assistance.

The eSafety Commissioner has an online guide for how to capture screenshots and record evidence of harassment.

There are three ways you can report harassment: to the social media platform, the eSafety Commissioner, and the police.

  • Social media platform

If you are being harassed through an established social media platform, this may be in breach of the platform’s policies and code of conduct.

Potential outcomes from reporting the harassment include: the offending material being removed from the website or platform and the harasser being suspended or banned from accessing or using the platform.

You can report abuse to social media platforms and other networking sites. The eSafety Commissioner's eSafety Guide has links to most social media reporting mechanisms.

  • eSafety Commissioner

The eSafety Commissioner has limited power when it comes to adult cyber abuse, but they can help with advice. In cases of extreme harassment they may be able to approach the social media organisation or website where the harassment has occurred. Find out more about reporting adult cyber abuse here.

  • To the police

You may wish to report the harassment to the police. We acknowledge that the police may not always be a safe option for women. We suggest going with a friend or trusted person for assistance and support.

Depending on the conduct, the police may charge the person who is harassing you with a criminal offence or help you make an application for a Personal Safety Intervention Order.

What is a personal safety intervention order?A personal safety intervention order (PSIO) is an order made by a Magistrate. The Order imposes rules or conditions on how a person can behave towards another.
When do you take out a personal safety intervention order? When an individual (the respondent) has assaulted, harassed, threatened or stalked you or damaged your property.
Who can apply for a personal safety intervention order?You can apply for the Order yourself. Someone else, such as your family member or a police officer, can also apply for a PSIO on your behalf.
Who can I get a personal safety intervention order against? Any individual that has assaulted, harassed, threatened or stalked you or damaged your property.
What is the process of getting a personal safety intervention order? If you are in immediate danger or feel unsafe, the first step is to contact the police.

The application is made by filling out this form on the Magistrates’ Court website. After filing the application, you have an interview with the Registrar at the Court and will receive a hearing date. To ensure your safety before the hearing date, you can apply to receive an interim order in the meantime.

Final orders made under a PSIO can include restrictions on the locations that the respondent can attend and how, or if, the respondent may communicate with you. It can also prohibit a respondent from publishing anything online against you, or getting someone else to do those things.

Breaking the conditions of the PSIO can result in the respondent being charged with a criminal offence.

Even if the person is not charged, you may also be entitled to compensation through the Victims of Crime Compensation Scheme. Police can provide you with more information about your eligibility for this scheme.

Depending on the nature of the harassment, there may be other legal avenues available to you. These will require you to engage the services of a lawyer and may not be financially feasible.

Generally speaking, there are two civil claims you might make in relation to online harassment:

  • Sexual harassment

What is sexual harassment?Sexual harassment is defined as a form of sex discrimination. It occurs where a person:

  1. Makes an unwelcome sexual advance, or an unwelcome request for sexual favours to another person: or

  2. Engages in any other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in relation to the other person. This can include written statements with sexual connotations to a person or about a person in their presence.


Sexual harassment can therefore take place over online forums such as Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and email, as well as in person.

Sexual harassment is prohibited at the workplace and this can extend to conduct that occurs out of work hours. Your workplace has obligations under workplace safety and discrimination laws to provide you with a safe working environment, including freedom from sexual harassment.

Unfortunately, the laws prohibiting sexual harassment are limited and do not cover all aspects of public life.
What are the regulating authorities?In Victoria, complaints regarding sexual harassment can be heard by:



Work Safe and WorkCover are also good sources of information to address sexual harassment that occurs in the workplace or as a result of employment.
What can I do if I am being sexually harassed?
  • Make a complaint or get advice at your local police station as you may be able to seek an intervention order. The behaviour might also constitute stalking or other criminal behaviour.

  • If the harassment does not amount to criminal behaviour, you may be able to make a complaint to the AHRC or the VEOHRC. Both the AHRC and VEOHRC can only receive complaints about sexual harassment that takes place in particular environments and circumstances. Examples include educational institutions, in the course of providing goods and services and in employment.

  • After making a complaint to either AHRC or VEOHRC, the AHRC or VEOHRC will arrange for a conciliation. During the conciliation, you can ask for remedies such as for the behaviour to stop, an apology and compensation for the damage caused by the harassment.

  • If you do not reach an agreed settlement, the matter may proceed to the Federal Court or VCAT. There can be costs implications in going to Court or VCAT so you should seek legal advice before doing so.
What protections from sexual harassment do I have at work?
  • Sexual harassment is prohibited at the workplace and this can extend to conduct that occurs out of work hours. Your workplace has obligations under workplace safety and discrimination laws to provide you with a safe working environment, including freedom from sexual harassment.

  • It is unlawful for your employer to discipline you or take action to threaten your employment because you are being harassed or because you might make a complaint that you are being harassed.
What can I do if I am being sexually harassed at work?If you are being harassed in your workplace the following options may be available:

  • Make a complaint to Human Resources, or a senior member of the organisation that you trust. Try to keep most correspondence with your workplace in writing and maintain written records of any meetings. Your employer may have specific processes for the management of sexual harassment in an internal policy or in an Enterprise Agreement.

  • Make an enquiry or complaint to WorkSafe, who have the power to inspect a workplace if safety concerns have been raised.

  • If the harassment has caused injury (including a psychological injury), you may also have a WorkCover claim.

  • If you are a member of a union, speak with your union representative.

  • Make a complaint to the AHRC or VEOHRC, where the claim may be brought against your employer and/or the harasser.

  • Bring a stop bullying claim to the Fair Work Commission (FWC). The FWC will arrange for a mediation or hearing in relation to your complaint. The FWC can only order that the bullying conduct or harassment cease; they cannot order the award of financial compensation.
What if the sexual harassment occurs in the course of my work, but it’s coming from a member of the public?If your employer has failed to take steps to protect you from online harassment arising outside the organisation, you may be able to bring a complaint to the AHRC, VEOHRC or WorkSafe.

  • Defamation

What is defamation?Defamation is a civil claim that you have suffered loss or damage because another individual or organisation has made comments about you that damaged your reputation or made others think less of you.
What is the governing authority?Defamation claims are brought under the Defamation Act 2005 (Vic) and other federal legislation.
Who can bring a claim of defamation?The individual or organisation that suffered harm to their reputation because of the comments made.
Who can I bring a claim of defamation against?The person or organisation who made or published the comments.
What do I need to prove?The considerations for a defamation claim are:

  1. Comments were published: to be “published” the comments can be made verbally or in writing such as on Twitter, Facebook, online forums or WhatsApp.

  2. The imputations from the comments are defamatory: this means that a reasonable person would think less of you after reading or hearing the comment.

  3. There are many factors that will affect this. For example, if the person making the comment is not well respected, it is unlikely that any comment they make could be defamatory.

  4. Whether there are any defences available to the maker of the comment. There are several defences to defamation claims, including honest opinion and truth.

  5. Whether you have experienced any loss because the comment was made.
How do I bring a claim of defamation?The first step is to write to send publisher or creator of the defamatory comment a “concerns notice”. The concerns notice identifies the publication, the imputations from the publication, how or why the imputations were defamatory and what loss has been suffered because of the publication. You will then need to state what remedies you would like to resolve your concerns. These could include an apology, the removal of the defamatory comment from publication and financial compensation for any loss suffered.

If the publisher or creator of the comment does not respond to your letter, you could commence a claim in Court. There can be costs implications in going to Court so you should seek legal advice before doing so.
What outcomes can I receive?If the matter proceeds to Court, remedies would include financial compensation for the damage suffered as a result of the defamatory comments, including any lost income or pain and suffering experienced.

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Share Your Experience

Share Your Experience

If you've had trouble seeking help from the police or another institution when you've experienced harassment, we want to hear from you. Your story can be anonymous, or you can leave your details if you'd be willing for us to get in touch with you. We will collect these experiences and de-identify them before we use them to inform our advocacy work to improve women's online safety.


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