House debates

Monday, 18 March 2024

Private Members' Business

Online Safety

11:04 am

Photo of David ColemanDavid Coleman (Banks, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Communications) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) notes that the:

(a) eSafety Commissioner recommended a mandated trial of age-assurance technology in her Roadmap for Age Verification, as a way of protecting children from online harm;

(b) Government refused to support the eSafety Commissioner's recommendation and instead backed the development of industry codes as a stopgap measure; and

(c) Government's decision has been widely criticised by leading child and women's safety advocates across Australia;

(2) further notes the evidence of the eSafety Commissioner during Senate Estimates on 13 February 2024, in which she confirmed there were already a range of age-assurance technologies that can be used to protect children from online harm, and that such 'technologies are getting better all the time';

(3) condemns the Government for:

(a) its refusal to support the recommendations of the eSafety Commissioner to support a mandated trial of age-assurance technology; and

(b) failing to support the Opposition private Member's bill for the introduction of such a trial; and

(4) calls on the Minister for Communications to:

(a) reverse her position on an age verification trial and support the Opposition's plan to implement a trial;

(b) announce plans for a new trial within 30 days; and

(c) commence a trial of age verification technology within three months.

There is nothing more important than the safety of children, and there is nothing more important than protecting the safety of children online. Who should we trust on this issue? Who is the top expert in Australia when it comes to protecting the safety of children online? It's the eSafety Commissioner.

About three years ago the coalition asked the eSafety Commissioner to look into the issue of age verification, which is about ensuring that children do not access content that is dangerous for them, particularly pornography, but it can be other things as well. The eSafety Commissioner spent two years looking into this. She came back to the government and said:

… implement a trial of age-assurance technology to protect children from dangerous online content, particularly pornography …

building on the very good work of the member for Fisher and many other esteemed members who were on a committee that looked into this issue some years ago. The eSafety Commissioner said: 'Do something. Run a trial. Mandate that a trial must occur with a view to putting in place a formal system after that trial.'

But what did the government say? The government said: 'No. We're not going to do that. Instead we're going to let the industry write the rules.' The industry here is the pornography industry. That's what the Minister for Communications said. She didn't want to do what the eSafety Commissioner said. She said that, instead, the industry should write the rules.

We brought a piece of legislation to parliament on this very issue last year. It was widely supported across the parliament and was basically saying, 'Let's do what the eSafety Commissioner wants us to do and let's put in place a trial of age-assurance technology.' Pretty much everyone in this parliament, except the government, supported that because it's so simple, it's so sensible and it's clearly the right thing to do. But it's not just people in parliament who want this to happen. Australia's top experts on children's safety want this to happen as well. Tomorrow it will be six months since a group of experts wrote a very powerful letter to the minister asking her to act on the eSafety Commissioner's recommendation. They wrote that letter six months ago. What's happened in response? Nothing. They said:

It is our strong view that the Government has allowed itself to be swayed by industry resistance to an age verification system. Vested interests should not have been put before the wellbeing of children.

Those are very strong words. Who said those words? People, including Robert Fitzgerald, the former Commissioner of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, did. People like Chanel Contos of Teach Us Consent signed the letter. People like Grace Tame, of the Grace Tame Foundation, signed the letter. People like Alison Geale, the CEO of Bravehearts and, of course, Melinda Tankard Reist, from Collective Shout, signed the letter. Fifty people signed this letter. What did the government do? Nothing. They've had the letter for six months.

Just last month, the eSafety Commissioner was asked about this issue again at Senate estimates. What did she say? She said:

There are a range of technologies out there that are being used for the purposes of gambling and alcohol and can be used to protect children from pornography as well in a way that is privacy protective and enhancing.

Even since we delivered the roadmap in March last year, we've seen even more maturation of the age-assurance industry. The technologies are getting better all the time. And then she said:

The ecosystem is now mature enough that we could architect an age verification trial that would work. The technologies are evolving. The age-assurance industry is maturing. I think the time is right now that we all move forward.

The eSafety Commissioner, as she always does, was speaking in a very clear voice in the interests of keeping Australian children safe. But the minister—this hapless Minister for Communications—doesn't want to do it. There is no reason for that other than that the minister wants to support the industry over the interests of Australian children. That is utterly wrong in every possible way one could look at this issue. It is a shameful decision of this government, fully supported by the Prime Minister. It needs to change, and the government needs to reverse its position and get moving on this issue.

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

11:10 am

Photo of Daniel MulinoDaniel Mulino (Fraser, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I agree with some key aspects of the previous contribution—in particular, the importance of this issue, the importance of protecting children and the importance of steadily working through the eSafety Commissioner's recommendations. Where I disagree with the previous contribution is in its misrepresentation, in my view, of the minister's position when it comes to her response to that report. I will step through that carefully during my contribution.

The Roadmap for age verification was released in March 2023, and the government responded in August 2023—and I am going to provide a couple of brief quotes from that response later on in my contribution. I want to make the observation that there were some high-level guiding principles for this age-verification report, an important report and a very thoughtful report:

1. take a proportionate approach based on risk and harm

2. respect and promote human rights

3. propose a holistic response …

4. ensure any technical measures minimise data and preserve privacy

5. consider the broader domestic and international regulatory context

6. consider what is feasible now and anticipate future environments.

There were two key elements to a legislative or regulatory environment as put forward in that road map. One was establishing expectations and requirements for service providers to apply age assurance and other complementary measures, but also that there be established a regulatory scheme for the accreditation and oversight of age assurance providers to promote privacy, security, strong governance, transparency, trustworthiness and fairness. I want to add that, when you read this report, it's absolutely clear that the commissioner was recommending a holistic approach, reflecting that children access pornography and other inappropriate material in both intentional and non-intentional contexts.

I want to put to the chamber that this is a very complex issue when it comes to actually implementing a measure that, if it were able to be implemented in a simple way, would provide protection. But there are a raft of considerations that need to be taken into account, and many of these were explicitly identified in the road map. Age assurance measures—and this is something directly referred to in the road map—have the potential to deter users from accessing compliant sites, which may lead to situations where they instead follow what you might call a path of least resistance and end up on high-risk sites. There are also a whole range of privacy, security and reliability issues.

For the sake of putting this issue in context, I will clarify terminology. Age assurance is what is generally referred to as what we are seeking here, which is a combination of two different approaches: age verification, which could potentially be achieved through physical or digital identification; or age estimation, which would be achieved through a range of techniques, including estimating the age of the person by using facial images, voice or any number of other techniques. That second set of processes has a range of accuracy, but, as the previous speaker identified, the accuracy of age estimation using certain techniques is increasing. But it is also the case that using certain age estimation techniques does raise privacy issues, which would need to be managed through a range of very strong governance procedures.

It's important to note that the road map suggested a pilot for the reason that there are many issues that need to be managed as we move towards an age assurance system. Even the road map didn't say that we should immediately move towards a mandatory system. This is something that clearly needs to be piloted and worked through. The recommendations from the road map indicated that there should be funding of specialist researchers and that there should be a pilot—and that's exactly what the government is currently considering. The pilot is under consideration, and scoping work is currently being undertaken through a range of departments.

11:15 am

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to address my comments to the young ladies who are up in the gallery right now, because they are a cohort that will be most impacted by the discussion that we are having in here. And those members opposite and the minister in particular should hang their heads in shame. Mr Deputy Speaker Freelander, you gave this report, called Protecting the age of innocence, its name, and it was very appropriately named. You made some great contributions on that committee.

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Fisher.

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It was a committee that decided unanimously to recommend that government introduce a system of age verification for online pornography, as did the former member for Dunkley and as did the current Deputy Speaker, the member for Macquarie. Labor members of the committee recommended that government introduce age verification for online pornography, because, Mr Deputy Speaker, you heard what I heard. We heard about innumerable instances and occasions of young women being assaulted by young men because of what they saw online through online pornography.

You can't go into a newsagent's and buy pornography when you are under 18. So why should you be able to access pornography on the internet when you are under 18? All we were asking is that the real world replicates the online world. Mr Deputy Speaker, you heard what I heard. You heard evidence of young women who'd had the most horrible things done to them because young men, in particular, have grown up with a fairly perverted concept of what a healthy sex life is, because of what they see in online pornography. You heard it. You agreed to it, Mr Deputy Speaker, as did all Labor members on that committee. Yet the minister comes in here and says: 'No, no, no; we shouldn't be doing this. Let the porn industry police themselves. Let them come up with a code of conduct.'

We just listened to the previous speaker talk, quite frankly, rubbish. Those members opposite are suggesting that the perfect be the enemy of the good. But no system is perfect. No system designed by human beings is perfect. That doesn't mean you don't try to fix something that is clearly a societal problem. I was listening to a Michelle Grattan podcast this morning—Conversations. Her most recent guest was again saying that pornography amongst young people, particularly young men, is having a very significant impact on the welfare of young women. And, quite frankly, it is not just young people. It is men my age who are watching pornography online and then trying to live out that false life in their real life, and it is having significant impacts on women—on domestic violence rates, on sexual assault rates. I cannot for the life of me understand why members opposite, including the minister, don't come in here and say: 'You know what? This bill that the member for Banks has put up is a good idea. Let's trial it.' The evidence is there. This is in place now in the United Kingdom, amongst other countries. What does it hurt to trial it? Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It is common sense. I know members opposite think this is a good idea. You did. All the members on the committee did. Just try and get your minister to see sense and support this bill.

11:20 am

Photo of Sally SitouSally Sitou (Reid, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I agree with the concern from the member for Fisher and the members who have spoken before. We in this place all want to ensure that children are kept safe from harm, particularly harm that they may experience online. This digital age is a new world for many of us. It's not a world that I grew up in or that I understand. So to think about my son growing up in this world and having all that awful content available to him at the touch of an iPad or online is quite scary. This is something that we're all grappling with, and I appreciate the concern of many in this chamber who've spoken already and the need for government to play a role. I think we all recognise that there's a role for us all to play, because respectful relationships need to be something on which we as a society come together to ensure that we are making people recognise that it is incumbent on all of us to play a role in teaching kids greater respect in relationships. The Albanese Labor government is committed to minimising the harm for children from accessing inappropriate content online.

I want to give the former government credit here because they established the eSafety Commissioner to provide an independent regulator to protect children online. It was the world's first government agency dedicated to keeping people safer online. We've increased the mandate of the commission to ensure that it protects not only kids but all Australians online. We've also quadrupled the regulator's ongoing base funding to ensure that they are funded into the future, and they are leading the charge in keeping Australians safe online. The eSafety Commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, told an international forum last year that they were able to remove a video showing a young Australian being beaten up at school from Instagram just 12 minutes after it was reported to eSafety. It was one of the quickest removals by the regulator and clearly demonstrates the important role they play in our society.

The Roadmap for age verification report by the eSafety Commission examines the potential use of age verification and other strategies to shield children from the dangers of online pornography. It suggests steps such as funding research and education programs, raising awareness and testing age verification technologies before making them mandatory. Currently, a pilot program is being evaluated, with the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts leading the charge to explore these options government-wide.

At the same time, the government is also committed to implementing the Online Safety Act. The act mandates a more proactive role from the industry in protecting users, including the creation of industry codes. These codes specify measures to curb access and exposure to and storage of certain harmful online materials. The eSafety Commissioner has approved six industry codes aimed at combating illegal content. However, two codes, covering electronic services and designated internet services, were rejected by the regulator, leading to the development of mandatory standards. Again, this demonstrates the eSafety Commissioner's important role in working with industry to protect Australians online.

Safeguarding our kids online also means taking action offline. That is why we are working to ensure that children are educated about the importance of consent and respectful relationships. There is a role for all of us across the community to play to keep kids safe online. That's why I'm hosting a forum at Russell Lea Public School on Thursday 4 April at 6 pm for parents across my electorate. The federal Minister for Communications, Michelle Rowland, along with a representative from the eSafety Commissioner, will be there to share invaluable insights and practical tips for safeguarding our kids online. We'll be discussing cyberbullying, safer gaming online, understanding social media and protecting your child's privacy. I'd encourage all parents to RSVP for this event, because there's a role for us to play to protect our kids and minimise harm to kids online.

11:25 am

Photo of Gavin PearceGavin Pearce (Braddon, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Health, Aged Care and Indigenous Health Services) Share this | | Hansard source

There's always a lot going on in this place. It's probably one of the things we do agree on. Today is one of those days where we need to take a pace back. We need to really consider what this means and the gravity at the base of this bill. We need to remind ourselves what's really important. For me, and for everyone on this side, the answer is clear cut: there is no greater purpose of this Australian government than keeping its Australian citizens safe and protecting those when they can't protect themselves. That's why the Liberal-National coalition has always put national safety at the forefront of our policymaking agenda. We stand firm against entities, whether they be foreign businesses or individuals, that seek to harm us and harm our children.

That's why I'm standing here today. I'm standing up to condemn this government for refusing to take every single measure available to them to keep our children, our next generation, safe from online pornography and the range of negative consequences that comes from accessing that pornography. These negative effects include, but are certainly not limited to, lowering kids' self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, greater acceptance of sexual aggression, normalisation of violence against women and the alarming rise of child-on-child sexual abuse.

I just don't understand Labor's position on this. I can't fathom it. Those opposite think altering the self-regulatory porn industry codes will fix the problem. That's what they think. It beggars belief. What we must be investigating right now is the mechanism to prevent access to the source. We need to be cutting the head off the snake. Statistics around the world about children accessing pornography are confronting. Almost half of Australian children aged between the ages of nine and 16 experience regular exposure to sexual images. Over 80 per cent of young men aged 14 to 17 have been exposed to online pornography. A third of these first saw pornography before the age of 13.

This was an issue that the former Liberal-National government was tackling head on. We commissioned the parliamentary inquiries in 2016 and 2019. The 2019 inquiry specifically looked at using age verification to prevent children accessing online wagering and online pornography sites. For those who don't know or understand what that is, age verification is a process that confirms the person accessing an online site is the age that they claim to be, and if you can't confirm that age then you are blocked from utilising that site.

Key recommendations of the 2019 inquiry included that the eSafety Commissioner be funded to undertake a trial of age verification for online pornography. It was a recommendation to government that had almost universal support. More than three in four adults surveyed during the inquiry supported the implementation of age-assurance technology. The nation's leading child and women's safety advocates supported the trial, and of course the Liberal-National coalition supported the trial. We stood behind it. The two most significant stakeholders that don't support the trial are the pornography industry and this Labor government.

It's a national safety issue, and we now should be investigating all options, every single one, in order to ensure our most vulnerable kids are protected. Unfortunately, our children's safety is not this Labor government's priority. Instead, they've turned their backs on our kids, on our children, on our safety advocates and on their own eSafety Commissioner. They've turned their backs to the side and their one ally—the pornography industry—rightly so.

Child safety advocates have been swift in their condemnation of this government. Fifty leading advocates have written to the minister, urging the government to reconsider the decision and to reject the trial. The group, called Collective Shout, said the Labor government has prioritised pornography profits over the protection of our children. Why has this federal government put the vested interests of the global predatory porn industry over wellbeing and safety of our kids? It's shameful, and I call on Minister Rowland to reverse this bad decision and to listen to her eSafety Commissioner and protect Australian kids.

11:30 am

Photo of Libby CokerLibby Coker (Corangamite, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

No Australian wants children accessing pornography online. No Australian accepts the exploitation or abuse of children online, and no parent wants to deal with such online abuse. Parents across our nation are grappling with the challenges of the online environment. Many feel disempowered, and look to government to step up, and the Albanese government and our minister for communications are doing so. We are supporting recommendations for the eSafety Commissioner to develop a roadmap for age verification. Released in March last year, the roadmap investigated how age verification and other measures could be used to prevent and mitigate harm to children from online pornography. It also made a number of recommendations, including that the government invest in research, education, awareness and resources, and pilot age-assurance technologies before mandating them. A pilot is now under consideration, and the department of communications is currently scoping this work across government.

The roadmap also highlights the importance of respectful relationship education in online safety, sexuality and consent. These are integral in addressing the harms associated with online pornography. The government is delivering on these by providing: $83.5 million over six years to support the delivery of age-appropriate, evidence-based and expert-developed respectful relationships education aligned to the Australian curriculum; $39.9 million under the National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022-32 to develop a prevention campaign on consent and respectful relationships; and $100 million over five years to support Our Watch to deliver on priorities of the national plan and continue successful initiatives for the primary prevention of violence against women and children. Finally, $23.3 million is being provided over five years for the ANROWS national priority research fund, which will continue to build the evidence base that supports ending violence against women and children in Australia.

The Albanese government is also committed to completing the implementation of the Online Safety Act and the powers it provides to the eSafety Commissioner to develop new mandatory industry codes to protect children from online pornography. These codes will apply to all different sections of the digital industry, including pornography websites, app stores and internet service providers, as well as sites where children unintentionally come across pornography—like social media and gaming sites. Under the law, if the codes do not provide appropriate safeguards, the eSafety Commissioner can reject them and move to enforceable standards. Industry also faces penalties for noncompliance. Advice from eSafety on the kinds of measures that could be incorporated into the new codes include: a clear minimum age to use the service; an enforcement of that through age-assurance mechanisms; proactive content detection; and moderation technology. The government is also closely monitoring international and industry developments, and in February this year co-signed a historic online safety and security memorandum of understanding with the United Kingdom, committing to closer cooperation to tackle online harms. This will ensure both countries can learn from each other as we address the challenges of preventing children being exposed to harmful material online.

The Albanese government is committed to supporting e-safety and to improving online safety for Australians, particularly young and vulnerable Australians. To this end, the 2023-24 federal budget quadrupled ongoing funding to the e-safety regulator. This important contribution will rectify underfunding by the previous coalition government.

We acknowledge that parents, carers and other members of the community who care for children may feel overwhelmed by this issue. Please be assured that advice and supports are available through the e-safety website. I encourage everyone in my region to access these resources. As a member of the federal government, I want you to know that I'm always there for you if you need to reach out. To that end, I'll soon be holding a forum in my electorate on keeping kids safe. I'll keep you up to date. We must all, in this place, strive to stamp out online abuse.

11:35 am

Photo of Nola MarinoNola Marino (Forrest, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I certainly support the motion by the member for Banks and wholeheartedly agree that everybody in this House should be doing everything they can to keep our kids safe. While the government is going through this process, we could have—and should have—already had a trial in place in the way that the member for Banks has articulated.

Having given hundreds of cybersafety presentations to schoolkids since being in this place—hundreds—I can speak with a lot of authority on what the kids are dealing with, which is why I so strongly support this.

A two-year trial wouldn't have been much to ask for, as the eSafety Commissioner did. Every day, more and more kids are being affected by this, by their accessing of pornography and what it does to them and their lives. The eSafety Commissioner said there are already age-assurance technologies that can be used right now to help protect children from online harm. That's what the government should have done immediately—not waiting, not giving the porn industry even more opportunity to get to our children. That is not okay. It is not okay.

Of course, the government has said no to this trial. When looking at this, the eSafety Commissioner, an office that we set up in government, titled this 'A matter of principle: guiding the age verification roadmap.' That is what this discussion is about today: the age verification; the matter of principle. It is not okay for the government to wait. You don't wait when you're talking about kids being safe online.

I talked to one group of kids in my electorate who came to me to tell me they were desperately concerned. They were 15- and 16-year-olds, and they had nine-year-olds that they knew were watching live streaming of sex acts online. Why is that okay? Why isn't age verification important in that space?

Equally, in my time of dealing with the issues that the young people have talked to me repeatedly about in those hundreds of cybersafety presentations, what about the GPs who've had to deal with the internal damage that young women have experienced because their first experience learning about sex was from a pornography site by a young man? Why is it okay for that to continue? It is not, because pornography, particularly that which depicts violence, has direct harm, and it has mental harm as well as physical harm, as I've just said.

The majority of parents indicate that children as young as four are using the internet. Look at what they would have access to. It only takes the wrong words typed in, and guess what they can come up with right now?

Educators are now reporting, as the eSafety Commissioner has said, that young children from year 1, aged six and seven, are viewing, sharing and discussing pornography at school. Why wouldn't the government be doing everything it could, even with a trial, to start to try to address this? It is not okay in anyone's language—ever. This is and should be an ongoing issue for all of us, and I take this very seriously and personally with the amount of effort that I have put in to try to help to keep our kids safe.

From eSafety's own research, three-quarters of 16- to 18-year-olds have viewed it at some stage, and most of that is before the age of 16. It is violent and it shows a lack of respect, consent or agency, particularly for women and less dominant partners. This affects young people all the way through their lives, and it isn't okay for any child to access pornography in this way. It scares them so much. The younger they are the more damage it does to them when they access it, and often they won't talk about it with anyone because they know that they've done something wrong, they're scared and they're worried. I say to them: 'Please find your trusted adult, the person you can talk to, no matter what happens to you online, even if you've done something you think you shouldn't or if you're scared, worried or upset. Having that trusted adult that you can talk to is always going to help you.'

But I just wonder, while we wait for what the government is trying to do here, how many more kids are going to be affected by this? Every one is one too many, and that's how I've approached what I've done in my own electorate. Every one child matters, and every one child I can help keep safe online I will. (Time expired)

11:40 am

Photo of Michelle Ananda-RajahMichelle Ananda-Rajah (Higgins, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We are all in furious agreement in this House that we want our kids to be kept safe, whether that be online or in the physical world. Unfortunately, social media—bearing in mind that Meta turns 20 this year—has I think been overall a net negative. It has resulted in the fracking of our attention—not only our children's but ours. It has driven polarisation, it has spread misinformation and disinformation around the world and it has in fact threatened the foundations of our democracy. To add to that litany of harms, now we have the problems associated with highly porous online porn sites.

Online porn is harmful because it affects and shapes attitudes which then go on to impact behaviours. It's largely created for a male, heterosexual audience, which then leads to harmful depictions of sexuality, leading to sexism and misogyny and, indeed, it has been linked to gender-based violence. The statistics are alarming, and these come from the roadmap that was released in March 2023. Three-quarters of 16- to 18-year-olds have seen online porn, and of these a third were exposed before the age of 13 and nearly half saw it between the ages of 13 and 15.

However, the issue is: where are they actually consuming this material? As it turns out, 70 per cent of the material is consumed on porn sites, as you would imagine; however, that means that 30 per cent isn't. That 30 per cent encompasses social media sites, group chats and private group pages—for example, pages like Discord. So when they talk about initiating or piloting age-assurance mechanisms I think the coalition are talking specifically about porn sites, but you would then create a whack-a-mole problem where you may inadvertently drive audiences, including children, to these other sites: social media, Discord, group chats and private pages. You would also then drive the content to those sites. What is actually needed here, rather than a reflexive action, is a holistic approach to keeping children safe online, and that is certainly something that we, as a government, are looking at.

Age-assurance technologies is an umbrella term that encompasses age verification, which has a very high accuracy, as well as age estimation, which relies on things like biometrics of the face or analysis of the voice—which is fine if you have a voice that's not affected, for example, by an unusual accent or fluency problems. There are other ways of assessing age that may rely on tests of capacity or cognition—similar to the tests that I used to use as a medical practitioner—and then there are harder identifiers requiring documents, which is fine if you actually have those documents at hand.

There's been some interesting work looking at age tokens, whereby an age is verified but the provider is blinded to it. This token is held on a device—for example, in a secure wallet—and then used for a period of time so that personal details are not shared every time a person wants to access content. The important thing here is that there are a lot of technologies out there that have been trialled, but they aren't mature; they're still evolving. We're not going to rush in. We're doing some scoping work as to which one of these is best to deploy, and it may well be, based on the advice that has come from the eSafety Commissioner, that we will have to use a variety of options because that is in fact what consumers want.

Children are going onto these sites for lots of reasons. Obviously we want to protect them, but we also want to make sure we have tools that are effective and that don't inadvertently drive traffic to more porous sites, shall we say. In terms of a holistic approach, it's not enough to target age gating; we also have to educate people on respectful relationships, which is what we're doing, in order to create that counternarrative to the harmful norms that are being perpetrated in online porn.

11:46 am

Photo of Aaron VioliAaron Violi (Casey, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I commend the member for Forrest, who is still in the House, for her advocacy and her whole career in this space of keeping children safe online. She spoke so well and so eloquently before. She has been a fierce advocate; I've seen that in the 18 to 20 months I've been here. It's wonderful to see the member take any chance to talk about the importance of this space. I commend her for her lifelong advocacy; it has an impact on all of us. I also commend the member for Banks not only for bringing this motion but for his private member's bill.

We've heard those opposite talk about the importance of online safety. They recognise that, but when there was an opportunity to do something they didn't take that opportunity. It shows, ultimately, the hypocrisy of this Prime Minister and this government. Day after day in this House, particularly in question time, and in the media, we hear the government criticise our side of parliament for being negative, for saying no, for not working with them. Here we had an opportunity for bipartisan support to keep children safe—a recommendation from the eSafety Commissioner for the mandated trial of age assurances—and this government said no. They said they were not prepared to work with us to keep children safe online.

Sometimes we can get into the technical weeds of talking about age assurance and different technologies, so let's take a step back and understand what we're talking about here. Let's use an example of if this technology was in the real world. Essentially the government is saying that if you've got three shops on a strip, a TAB, a pub and an adult store selling pornography, and if a 12-year-old child tries to walk into the TAB they'll get denied entry and be told: 'No, you're 12. You're too young. You can't come in', and if they then go next door and try and walk into the pub, without their parents, to order a beer, they'll get told, 'No, you cannot buy alcohol in this store', but if they go to the third store, the adult shop, and say, 'I would like to buy a DVD of pornography', the owner will say, 'Yes, no problems', and hand it over—no issue at all. That is the reality of what we were talking about with that bill, and what the coalition was trying to stop and what those opposite voted against—protecting children from accessing pornography. That's what happens in the real world: if you, as a 12-year-old, walk into that shop, in any town and any community across this country you get stopped from going into that store—but online you're not able to be. If you try to buy alcohol of if you try to put a bet on, you get stopped by the age verification technology.

We're hearing things about needing to do reviews and understand. This is one of the classic examples I talked about in my first speech: as we get more technologically advanced, the pace of regulation doesn't keep up. But the technology exists. It exists in gambling. It exists with online liquor. The eSafety Commissioner herself confirmed it existed. So we'll hear those opposite talk about needing to do reviews and comprehensive approaches, absolutely. But this is a trial for two years to save children, and we should start it straight away. As the member for Forrest said, if this can save one child from going through the trauma of online pornography and inappropriate content, surely it is worth starting the trial, to see if it will make a difference. If we wait one, two, three years for a comprehensive review, guess what? We'll probably want to start this trial anyway. There's no justification for ignoring the evidence of the eSafety Commissioner.

This was an opportunity for bipartisan support, so I commend the member for Banks for his leadership in this space, bringing this motion on and also bringing forward the private member's bill. It is vital that we do everything we can in this House to protect children. We all know it's been articulated—the dangers and damage of online pornography to young children, particularly young men, and what that does when they take it to the real world.

11:51 am

Photo of David SmithDavid Smith (Bean, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The internet has provided many transformative positives for our society, but it's also brought with it ethical dilemmas on how we can regulate it and its impacts. Arguably, the failure to do so in the early years of the web have left us, at times, trying to retrofit and play catch-up.

Most people do not dispute that the internet should be free and open to all so all can explore ideas and communicate across distance and cultures. At the same time there are few who would advocate that the internet should be a place of perfect freedom, a place where criminals should be free to exploit citizens. Most consider, as philosopher John Locke did, that there is a role for government in protecting the natural rights of citizens. In the case of the internet, that includes combatting internet criminals and protecting vulnerable citizens from exploitation and undesirable online contacts and content. We must ensure that the parliament remains united in its mission to minimising the harm that comes from children accessing content online that's not appropriate for them. The Albanese government is committed to doing this and is particularly concerned with the negative impact that exposure to online pornography can have on children and young people.

On 31 March 2023, the eSafety Commissioner delivered the roadmap for age verification to the government. The roadmap explores if and how age verification and other measures could be used to prevent and mitigate harm to children from online pornography. The roadmap made a number of recommendations, including that the government invests in research, education, awareness and resources and pilots age-assurance technologies before seeking to mandate them. A pilot is now under consideration, and the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts is currently scoping this work across government.

This government is also committed to completing the implementation of the Online Safety Act—importantly, the powers it provides the eSafety Commissioner to develop new mandatory industry codes to protect children from online pornography. These codes will apply to all different sections of the digital industry. Under the law, if the codes do not provide appropriate safeguards, the eSafety Commissioner can reject them and move to enforceable standards. Industry also faces penalties for noncompliance. Advice from the eSafety Commissioner on the kinds of measures that could be incorporated include a clear minimum age to use the service and enforcement of that through age-assurance mechanisms, among other measures, such as proactive content detection and moderation technology.

The roadmap calls out the importance of respectful relationships education, and the related topics of online safety, sexuality and consent are integral to addressing the harms associated with online pornography.

The government is delivering on these by providing: $83.5 million over six years to support the delivery of age appropriate, evidence based and expert developed respectful relationships education aligned with the Australian curriculum; just under $40 million under the National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022-2032 to develop a prevention campaign on consent and respectful relationships; and just over $100 million over five years to support Our Watch to deliver on its priorities in the national plan and to continue successful initiatives for the primary prevention of violence against women and children.

We acknowledge that parents, carers and other members of the community who care for children may feel overwhelmed by this issue. Advice and support are available. eSafety has published a range of practical online resources with easy-to-follow advice about how technology and parental control settings can prevent children from accessing online pornography.

Education is not a quick solution but it is essential and highly effective. It will play a crucial role in protecting current and future generations. In addition, this government has brought forward the independent statutory review of the Online Safety Act, which will be completed in this term of government. With the online environment constantly changing, an early review will ensure Australia's legislative framework remains responsive to online harms and that the eSafety Commissioner can continue to keep Australians safe from harm. The Albanese government is committed to ensuring that Australia has world-leading online safety laws that allow Australians to harness the potential of the digital environment while also keeping them safe online.

11:56 am

Photo of David GillespieDavid Gillespie (Lyne, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Online safety for children is probably one of the most pressing immediate problems in this digital world now. We have all heard stories about the epidemic of childhood anxiety and concerns, and about the abuse of children. It is endemic. Unfortunately, most of the causes of the anxiety is happening online; that's where trolls, colleagues and peers of teenagers are abusing them. But there are people based in Nigeria, and around the world, that present themselves as people they're not. Often they're male, they're part of a gangster organisation and they're presenting as a cute teenage girl. And they entrap young boys and men.

Age verification software is part of trying to fix that problem. There are varying permutations of online child abuse. Having a roadmap for age verification seems like an eminently suitable initiative. Yet the minister is not following the advice of her own eSafety Commissioner. The government has refused to support the eSafety Commissioner's recommendation, and instead has backed the development of industry codes as a stop-gap measure. Industry codes sound good in practice, but these online platforms are a rule and a law to themselves. They would laugh at a roadmap. You've just got to see what they've done so far; for example, Meta have now refused to pay for all the media that they put on their platforms for free.

It's really counterproductive to not follow this advisory roadmap. During Senate estimates that was discussed. There is a range of software and apps that are ready to roll to do this. But we need to mandate it. We need to make it a regulation, not just a so-called advisory, if we are going to address the problem of young people being so distressed that they actually commit self-harm, up to and including suicide.

The digital world is with us and it's with our children and young people now. We really need to follow this train of practice, not just talk about it. We on this side are calling on the minister to reverse her position on an age verification mandate. Even if you're not going to do it, at least start a trial so you yourself can see it will be beneficial. The urgency of this is paramount. Every time I go home, throughout my time in parliament, telecommunications and IT issues always turn out to be one of the more common things. Amongst that IT-and-digital-world set of problems, this is palpable. Parents are worried about it. I'm worried about it. Many people on that side, on the minister's side, of this House are worried about it. It's not going to cost a fortune. It's going to be easy to implement. I just commend an age-verification process to be started as soon as possible.

Photo of Ross VastaRoss Vasta (Bonner, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order. I thank the honourable member for Lyne. The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.