Wednesday, 4 March 2015
Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill 2014, Enhancing Online Safety for Children (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2014; Second Reading
I rise to oppose passage of the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill 2014. I do so because this bill, like so much of the legislation supported by the major parties in this place, mistakes the state for civil society. In this instance, the mistake is borne of a desire to 'protect the children', a cry that is too often turned into an excuse to restrict everyone's liberties. The bill implements a commitment to deal with electronic posts that bully an Australian child. It creates a new bureaucracy costing $11 million per year, introduces civil penalties of up to $17,000 for social media sites that do not promptly remove material as directed, and facilitates injunctions on bullies The injunctions will mandate a requirement to apologise.
The $11 million I mentioned will pay for the establishment of a Children's e-Safety Commissioner as an independent statutory office within the Australian Communications and Media Authority. He or she will administer a complaints system for cyberbullying material that is targeted at an Australian child. He will have the power to issue a notice to a large social media service requiring it to remove 'cyberbullying material' as defined in the bill. He has other functions too. He will promote online safety for children, have power to evaluate and accredit educational programs, make grants and advise the Minister for Communications. Very simply, the bill is unnecessary.
Under Commonwealth criminal law, penalties of up to $30,600 can already be imposed for posting menacing, harassing or offensive material on a carriage service. There have been 308 successful prosecutions under this law since 2005. Existing laws simply need to be enforced more expeditiously. The proposed antibullying law could prompt the likes of Facebook and Twitter to remove posts indiscriminately, as soon as there is a complaint, to ensure that they avoid the new penalties. That may have a serious impact on legitimate social media commentary.
The alternative involves waiting to see if the regulator gives a direction to remove the post and then removing it within 48 hours of the direction. It is worth mentioning that if a direction comes at 4 pm on a Friday, the post must be removed by 4 pm on a Sunday. How smart is that!
The bill defines bullying material as 'material sent via email, messaging, chat functions or social media that is intended to have an effect on an Australian child and that would be likely to seriously threaten, intimidate, harass or humiliate the child'. This covers a private conversation between a group of friends about another child.
The bill facilitates injunctions requiring bullies to apologise to the bullied. It strikes me as reasonably obvious that the government should not force apologies. Mandated apologies are insincere. Moreover, one only has to watch the parade of public figures who, when forced by a variety of organisations, both public and private, to apologise, engage in backside-covering not 'pologies' that do nothing to assuage the victim's hurt feelings and serve only to make everyone involved look like complete twits.
The bill also authorises the regulator to divulge information to principals, teachers, parents, ministers, public servants and police. The potential for retaliatory bullying, also known as authoritarian intervention, is enormous. I am not fond of qangos and agencies. I generally support throwing the lot on a bonfire, partly because they cost the taxpayer money and partly because they are borne of a belief that we need experts to tell us how to live. However, occasionally they are worthwhile. The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, which helps ensure transparent government and access to freedom of information, is a worthwhile agency.
This proposed Children's e-Safety Commissioner is not. Significantly, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner and the Children's e-Safety Commissioner cost the same amount of money. Yet the government wants to scrap the former and give us a statutory net-nanny, in some sort of perverse, irrational exchange.
First, learn to govern, and then you may earn the right to tell people how to raise their children.