Senate debates

Wednesday, 4 March 2015


Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill 2014, Enhancing Online Safety for Children (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2014; Second Reading

10:41 am

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill 2014 principally because it is something of great concern to me as a parent and I know it will be to many other parents here. I have children who are in this age bracket who are captured by interactions on social media and privy firsthand to some of the positive and negative reactions to it. However, I also want to express my concerns about government overreaching in certain areas. I do agree with Senator Leyonhjelm that, ultimately, children need to be taught a bit of resilience and there is not always going to be someone there to pick up the hurt feelings or the pieces. That is in no way excusing bullying or intimidation, or some of the terrible things that some children have to go through.

If you want to consider the impact that it has on children, you only have to consider firsthand the impact that it has on some adults. We have seen adults, whether as a result of mental fragility or cyberbullying, take their own lives because of poor feedback or abuse on Twitter, Facebook and those sorts of things. So there is a certain amount of resilience needed and this social media intimidation and bullying can have a terrible toll on people. But I do have concerns about the message we are sending in many instances.

Having dealt with and heard many stories from parents who are concerned about how their children have been treated in certain circumstances, I can well imagine the overwhelming influx of complaints that some social media networks will have when someone's son or daughter has had their feelings hurt because they have not liked what was said. I have heard of complaints where parents have engaged with schools or with other parents because their child has simply been defriended. When you investigate why they were defriended, you find it was because the child in their own case was doing the wrong thing and the peer group said, 'We don't want that,' and they defriended them on Facebook or whatever. Apparently that amounted to some sort of bullying. I can imagine any number of permutations of what constitutes bullying, harassments, insults or things that will upset people's feelings.

I feel for some of the social media outlets actually because they are going to have to deal with this influx. I suspect that, ultimately, not all of them will be managed satisfactorily. I think that the Children's e-Safety Commissioner will be inundated with all sorts of cases in which the commissioner is going to have to adjudicate.

The commissioner is going to be given two sets of powers. The first will require large social media services to remove material from their site. I do think this is a very important step, because a number of the large social media outlets are not very good at removing truly offensive material from their sites—even material condoning violence or which is distinctly racist. There does not seem to be any sort of consistency in how they approach things. As a conservative, I look at some stuff and ask, 'Why are they allowing that when they tear down this?' There seems to be a bit of political correctness in operation with some of them. We are adults and we should be able to deal with this stuff, but I do understand that this sort of intimidation—or things that denigrate children or make them feel terribly uncomfortable—should be removed. So I think this is a positive step.

The second set of powers, and Senator Leyonhjelm touched on this, allows the commissioner to issue a notice to an individual who has posted material, requiring them to remove it— I think that is reasonable and appropriate if the social media site will not do it—and to refrain from posting it again. But I do share Senator Leyonhjelm's thoughts about the requirement for an apology. You can be required to issue an apology for posting something that is negative about someone else even though you might not have breached any law. I am with Senator Leyonhjelm in that I believe that apologies are only worthwhile if they are voluntary. It is like any sort of moral code or adherence to any faith: when you are coerced into doing it, it lacks genuineness and is worth much less than something that is truly heartfelt.

Let me go back to the first bit about when the social media services are approached by the commissioner. If they fail to respond to a notice the commissioner has put forward, the commissioner can insist that there is a legal duty to remove the material. The social media service can face significant fines if they do not then comply. I think this is quite reasonable as well and I will tell you why. In the adult world, if you are maligned by, for example, a media organisation and that media organisation allows comments to appear on their blog which further malign or defame you, or if they have a Facebook page on which people post defamatory or other comments that are inappropriate, the media organisation is legally liable for those comments. In those circumstances, there are legal avenues through which you can address any sort of calumny that you feel has been committed against you.

However, in the world of children—who are perhaps less circumspect about the materials they post online than my generation, particularly because they have grown up with the internet—those avenues of legal redress are not really available. I am not sure in any case that it is appropriate for a child to be suing another child because they have been offended. But it is important that, where things are inappropriate, a commissioner or a responsible entity can step in and say, 'Let's try and have this removed', without having to go through any convoluted legal processes. I do think that is reasonable and that it is incumbent upon some of these social media organisations—companies worth tens and tens of billions of dollars—to take some responsibility in this area. They cannot do a Pontius Pilate and wash their hands of responsibility with respect to basic decency, particularly where it affects children. The commissioner can insist the service has a legal duty to remove the material and it can impose fines where the service fails to do so. The fine would be $17,000 for each day the service does not act in response to the commission.

In addition to running the complaints system, the commissioner will also be tasked with implementing policies to improve safety for children online. The commissioner will be responsible for $7.5 million of funding for online safety programs in schools and for overseeing research and information campaigns regarding online safety. All of these things are, I am sure, very helpful initiatives. I think many schools already run online safety initiatives. In my experience, where boundaries on social media have been crossed, students are usually made aware of it by their schools. The schools certainly undertake direct engagement, because ultimately these things can impact on the health and wellbeing—particularly the mental wellbeing—of our next generation.

Cyberbullying is a growing issue. I am not sure we are ever going to be able to eradicate it. There has always been bullying, whether over the colour of your hair, how tall you are or for having too many doughnuts at lunchtime, of which I myself may have been guilty—eating the doughnuts, I should say.


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