Wednesday, 4 March 2015
Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill 2014, Enhancing Online Safety for Children (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2014; Second Reading
Before I get into the substance of the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill 2014 and the related bill, I think I will respond briefly to some of what Senator Wright had to say there. Firstly, I think it trivialises what is a very serious issue. Secondly, I think the sort of suggestion that was inherent in what Senator Wright was saying—that members of the Senate or others have engaged in inappropriate behaviour in committees—is interesting, given that some of Senator Wright's own colleagues, such as Senator Hanson-Young, are the ones who I would say were some of the worst offenders in haranguing witnesses and the like. The utter hypocrisy of what we heard there! But what is a little bit more offensive even than the hypocrisy is the trivialisation of what is a very, very serious issue. It does not take much to read through some of the reports of serious cyberbullying and the real emotional toll that that takes on some young people, and I think the comparison to what sometimes goes on in Senate estimates committees is trivialising what is a very important issue.
I do want to lend my support to this bill, because I think it is an important bill, and I think it is an important debate. In this age of technology and global communications, we can of course all attest to how the online space has improved our capacity to learn, to grow and to communicate with others. That is a wonderful thing—it is something to celebrate, and it has benefits for adults and for children if done well, if done in a safe environment and if we have the proper safeguards in place. But of course we all know about the dangers of this space, and I will go to some of those in a moment. There are significant dangers. We know that for vulnerable people in our community, especially children, there are dangers in this space just as there are with other human interactions, but things like social media we see are all pervasive. In some people's lives they are a constant, and so we see a different type of threat emerging for our children in this space—one that needs a different type of response.
In 2014 the University of New South Wales Social Policy Research Centre concluded that the best estimate of cyberbullying over a 12-month period is 20 per cent of Australians aged eight to 17. Cyberbullying was most prominent in children aged between 10 and 15, with prevalence decreasing for the 16 to 17 age bracket. These figures mean that the estimated number of children and young people who have been victims of cyberbullying in 2013 is 463,000, with around 365,000 of those being in the 10 to 15 age group. Social media is creating a very substantial new workload for school principals and teachers, as well as for parents. The UNSW research found that 87 per cent of secondary schools reported at least one instance of cyberbullying in 2013, as did just under 60 per cent of primary schools. Research from the UNSW Social Policy Research Centre also concluded:
The most important barrier encountered by police and other agencies in dealing with cyberbullying is the lack of accountability of social media and other service providers, who are reluctant to take down offensive material and are often slow to respond to such requests, even from police.
We want our kids to be able to take advantage of the vast resources the internet provides, and of course our kids do. Being online has become part of the learning environment. I have five children of my own—a couple of them are in their teenage years—and as a parent I am very, very conscious of both the opportunities and the dangers in this space. That is very much what this legislation is about. It is about some balance in this space.
I talked about some of the shocking incidents of cyberbullying. I want to say a couple of things about that before I go to a couple of those particular examples. Firstly, bullying is nothing new. Before we had cyberbullying we had other types of bullying. School can be a very tough place. It was a tough place when I was at school; it is a tough place now in many circumstances. As parents we do all we can, and I know that teachers and administrators and principals do all they can, to make school as safe a place for children as possible. But bullying does go on, and sometimes it gets very serious. Sometimes we see kids self-harming in response. Sometimes, tragically, we see young people taking their own lives partially in response to that type of bullying. When we look at this issue, though, there are a couple of important points for me as a parent and for us as legislators. Of course we need to build resilience in our kids. Of course there are going to be people who are not nice to them at school or online. There are going to be people who seek to bully them. That, unfortunately, has always been a part of life. It is not an acceptable part of life—it is something we should condemn; it is something we should do all we can to protect our children from—but we do need to build resilience. But we also need to provide protection.
We need to work with parents. We need to work with communities to give them better tools and to give some safeguards. When we read about tragic cases like Chloe Ferguson—a young girl who took her own life in response to vicious bullying both online and in other ways—we cannot help but be moved and want to do something about that. We saw the case of an anonymous cyberbully who was allowed to spread demeaning and sexually explicit rumours about Adelaide teenagers for almost a week before Facebook shut the crude page, angering parents who say they feel paid powerless to protect their children. Despite receiving hundreds of complaints about the Adelaide burn book page, it took the social media site six days to close the page down after initially saying the page did not breach its community guidelines. The Adelaide burn book page was the latest in a string of burn books which feature unsolicited rumours and gossip about teenagers predominantly of a sexual nature. It does not take much to find dozens of reports of this type of activity online.
This legislation is about giving some sort of safeguards but it is not going to stamp this out. You are not going to stamp this stuff out completely any more than you can completely stamp out bullying or other inappropriate behaviour outside the online space. But this is about giving parents another resource and working with parents. The government has consulted extensively with schools, parents, social media services and children themselves to develop a response to this problem. This legislation before the Senate goes some way to addressing the safety needs of Australia's kids. It is part of the government's pre-election commitment to make kids safer online.
There are a number of elements to this bill that will enhance online safety including establishing the Office of the Children's e-Safety Commissioner and setting out the commissioner's functions and powers and creating an effective complaints system for harmful cyberbullying material targeted at an Australian child. The commission has two sets of powers it can use in responding to a complaint: the power to issue a notice to a large social media service requiring it to remove the material; and the power to issue a notice to the person who posted the material requiring the person to remove the material, refrain from posting material or apologise for posting the material.
The government is establishing a Children's a e-Safety Commissioner, which will be a single point of contact for online safety issues and will take the lead across government in implementing policies to improve the safety of children online. The commission will be part of the independent statutory office in the Australian Communications and Media Authority. A key function of the commissioner will be to administer a complaints system equipped to deal with materials related to bullying online. The commissioner will have two sets of powers it can use in responding to a complaint. Under a two-tiered scheme, the commissioner will have the power to issue a notice to large social media services requiring it to remove the material. If a social media service has volunteered to participate in tier 1, the notice will not be legally binding. However, a repeated failure by a large social media service to respond to such a notice exposes it to the risk of it being moved to tier 2. If a large social media service is in tier 2, it is legally required to respond to the notice. The commissioner will have the power to issue a notice to the person who posted the material requiring the person to remove the material, refrain from posting material or apologise for posting the material.
Going to the complaints system, there is a very clear process in the legislation dealing with complaints relating to online bullying materials. In the first instance, a complainant must report offending materials to the social media entity itself and follow their established complaints process. The government acknowledges that many of these social media organisations have improved their policies and procedures for dealing with complaints of this type and for removing offending material. If a site receives a complaint and deals with it quickly and effectively, the Children's e-Safety Commissioner will not need to be involved and this legislation will not have an impact. This is an important way this service will be targeted in line with the government's commitment to making regulations and legislation more effective.
The flexibility in this scheme that allows social media sites to deal with offending material quickly without government involvement is exactly the kind of regulation that works. It minimises the burden on industry, ensures there is no unnecessary regulation by utilising existing processes and still ensures there is a clear plan if these processes are insufficient or untimely. Therefore, the commissioner has the power to issue a notice to a social media service requiring it to remove offending material. The commissioner also has the power to issue a notice to the person who posted the material. This is first tier of the complaints system and it is set up to encourage social media services to be cooperative and to take the initiative when bullying and other damaging actions occur online. However, if a large social media service repeatedly fails to respond to a notice from the commissioner it can be moved to tier 2, meaning that it has a legal duty to remove cyberbullying material if it receives a notice from the commissioner, and it faces substantial fines if it does not. This means $17,000 in fines for each day that the service does not act in response to the commissioner. Other functions of the commissioner will include promoting online safety for children; coordinating relevant activities of Commonwealth departments, authorities and agencies in relation to online safety for children; and accrediting and evaluating online safety educational programs.
The relevance of accreditation is that the government is allocating $7.5 million for schools to purchase online safety programs, and this funding can be spent on any program accredited by the Children's e-Safety Commissioner. The commissioner will also take on responsibility for administering the current online content scheme under schedules 5 and 7 of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992. However, it is important to understand that this is simply the commissioner taking responsibility for administration of this existing and longstanding scheme. The bill does not make any changes to the online content scheme. It is separate from the new complaints system established by this bill.
As part of establishing relationships with social media services accessible to Australian children, wherever they may be based around the world, the commissioner will be expected to communicate the expectations set out in the bill of the basic online safety requirements. Many of the key stakeholders have expressed support for this legislation and the work of the new Children's e-Safety Commissioner. I want to quote from a couple of those stakeholders. Matthew Keeley, Director of the National Children's and Youth Law Centre said: 'The Enhancing Online Safety For Children Bill is good law and good policy. Kids—both victims of cyberbullying and the cyberbullies themselves—will be the major beneficiaries. Parents and teachers benefit too. The cyberbullying provisions, I think, will come to be seen as a world-leading strategy. The accreditation and grants provisions will do more to ensure consistent best practice in education and preventative approaches.' Phillip Heath, the National Chair of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia said: 'AHISA commends the government for taking action to help ensure the cybersafety of young people; in particular, the establishment of the Office of the Children's e-Safety Commissioner. The power of the commissioner to investigate and act on complaints, to send an end-user notice and to initiate litigation and the government's support for cybersafety programs will help schools communicate to young people the seriousness of inappropriate behaviours enacted through digital technologies.' Finally, Associate Professor Brian Owler, the President of the Australian Medical Association, said:
The Children’s E-Safety Commissioner will have a significant role raising awareness, and in educating children, young people, parents, and guardians about how to navigate the internet as safely as possible.
The Commissioner will also provide children and young people affected by cyber bullying a new avenue to raise concerns, and to get support in resolving online safety problems.
It is worth noting also that bullying online amongst adults is also a significant issue; however, there are existing criminal laws that apply in these cases. The government believes it is important to have a dedicated Children's e-Safety Commissioner so that there are extra protections for children who are more vulnerable in this space. This kind of extra protection for children exists in many other spheres and it is appropriate that it is also the case for online safety. The measures in this legislation are intended to work in conjunction with existing law and initiatives available to all Australians who may face online safety issues.
In conclusion, I do commend the legislation. In my opinion, it strikes a pretty good balance. It allows social media organisations to do the right thing without the government intervening. That is what we would all like to see: that hateful, aggressive and offensive material aimed at our children is taken down, without any need for government action. Of course, we know that in some cases that does not happen. We know that there is serious potential for harm to our young people as a result of this kind of online bullying.
We know that this legislation will not fix the issue. Of course it will not. We know that as parents we need to be constantly vigilant in this space and make sure that we are monitoring what our children are doing online, as best we can. Parents need assistance from time to time, and we should have government policies that make life a little bit easier for parents to protect their children. That is what this legislation does, in my opinion, and I therefore commend it to the Senate.