Senate debates

Wednesday, 4 March 2015


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

12:09 pm

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Social Services) Share this | Hansard source

Congratulations to you, Senator McKenzie, and the parliamentary netball team for slaying the press gallery team.

It is a good thing that there has been broad support in the other place for these two bills and I expect that there will also be broad support in this place for the legislation. I know that we all agree that Australians, particularly Australian children, deserve the right to learn, communicate and socialise with safety and protection from bullying, regardless of the platform or the forum. As Senator McKenzie mentions, we are in a new world; there are new forms of bullying and we do need to respond accordingly. We know that historically it happens in the schoolyard, but it does now unfortunately also happen on social media sites. We should be fostering an online environment for our kids which requires the same standards of social behaviour that we expect in the off-line world.

I note that a number of my Senate colleagues referred to the work of the Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety, including the 2011 report High-Wire Act: Cyber-Safety and the Young. The government does acknowledge the work of the committee. The previous government responded to the recommendations of this report in 2011 and did implement a number of initiatives. There is indeed a significant level of continuity with a number of these initiatives in the previous government. For example, the youth advisory group, the teachers and parents advisory council and the Online Safety Consultative Working Group are continuing initiatives. However, it has been close to four years since that report was published, so obviously that report is not the last word on these issues, particularly in such a fast-moving area.

The coalition conducted a thorough policy development process in 2012 when we were in opposition but also in 2013, when we established the coalition's online safety working group, which consulted widely on these areas. We took a detailed policy to the 2013 election. I remember watching the launch of that policy on TV. I think that Mr Fletcher was in Brighton in my home state with opposition leader Mr Abbott and they were graciously hosted by Councillor Felicity Frederico, who takes a strong interest in these matters.

This bill does give effect to our policy commitments. Once in government, the coalition did carry out further consultation, including consideration of over 80 submissions, which Senator McKenzie referred to, which were received in response to the public discussion paper released in January 2014. Research commissioned by the government led by the University of New South Wales and involving a consortium of universities was undertaken and the results of that research confirmed the messages that I think everyone in this place have been receiving from the community regarding the prevalence and impact of the cyberbullying. The coalition government voiced its election commitment to enhance the online safety for children back in 2013, and it did so knowing that the internet provides immense benefits for children and their families. Today's children, we know, are better informed, better able to express their creativity and better with technology than any previous generation. I am sure if Senator Boswell were still with us in this place, he would attest to that.

The internet is a central part of the lives of today's children and it will be a central part of their lives as adults as well. With the rapid changes in technology and accessibility to the internet across a range of platforms, the government has listened to the community and their concerns about exposure to harm online. This topic has brought out a unified voice from the community, a voice asking for the government to do more. Parents, school principals, teachers and child welfare advocates have all taken the time to provide feedback and personal stories about cyberbullying. To those people, on behalf of the government—and I am sure on behalf of all of us in this chamber—I thank you for making the time and the effort to enrich and inform the development of this legislation.

On 3 December last year, the government introduced these bills into the parliament to implement our election commitment. The government has continued to engage with key stakeholders, including members of the government's Online Safety Consultative Working Group. The members of that group, which includes industry, NGO and community representatives, deserve special thanks and acknowledgement for the contribution of their expertise towards this legislation.

The bills before the Senate were referred to the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee for inquiry and report. There were 29 submissions received by that committee, all of which the government has considered carefully. I note that I will, in the very near future, move an amendment to clause 50 of the bill. Clause 50 sets out the eligibility criteria for the statutory role of the Children's e-Safety Commissioner. It states that a person is not eligible to be appointed as the commissioner unless the minister is satisfied that they have substantial experience or knowledge, and significant standing, in at least one of a range of fields, including the fields of the operation of social media services and of public engagement on issues related to online safety. The amendment will expand the range of fields to include experience or knowledge in child welfare or child wellbeing. This amendment responds to submissions made by a number of stakeholders to the Senate committee inquiry into the bill.

The public policy process undertaken to date demonstrates in part that the government does not believe that keeping children safe online is exclusively or even largely a job for government. There is indeed a collective responsibility to keep children safe online. When it comes to online safety for children, we are all responsible—government, parents, schools and the online industry. All must form a community that collaborates and speaks out with a consistent message, one that says an unequivocal no to cyberbullying and other harmful treatment of children online.

The government is pleased to have forged constructive and fruitful relationships with a number of key organisations in this policy process, including a number of the large social media services such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and Yahoo!7. It is probably hard for people of the next generation to conceive that we—our generation, Mr Deputy President—were able to grow up without ever having known any of those now household names.

The measures in these bills implement key aspects of the government's election commitment to enhance online safety for Australian children. The legislation will establish the Children's e-Safety Commissioner as an independent statutory office within the Australian Communications and Media Authority to take a national leadership role in online safety for children. The commissioner will administer a complaints system for cyberbullying material targeted at an Australian child, along with promoting online safety for children and coordinating relevant activities of Commonwealth departments, authorities and agencies in relation to online safety for children. The commissioner will also accredit and evaluate online safety educational programs, along with taking responsibility for administering the existing online content scheme.

The legislation sets out a two-tiered scheme for the rapid removal from large social media services of cyberbullying material targeted at an Australian child. Social media services participating under tier 1 will do so on a cooperative basis—that is, the service will apply to participate and, on acceptance of its application, will be included as a tier 1 service. The commissioner will have the power to revoke tier 1 status, however, if the service repeatedly fails to remove cyberbullying material following requests from the commissioner over a 12-month period. A service may also be declared tier 2 at its own request. Those services which are declared to be tier 2 will be subject to legally binding notices—which noncompliance with can lead to civil penalties. The two-tiered scheme allows for a light-touch regulatory approach in circumstances where the social media service has an effective complaints scheme that is working well. But it does enable the government to require that cyberbullying material targeted at an Australian child be removed in circumstances where a social media service does not have an effective and well-resourced complaints scheme.

The legislation gives the commissioner the power to issue an end-user notice to a person who posts cyberbullying material targeted at an Australian child. An end-user notice may require the recipient of the notice to take all reasonable steps to remove the material, refrain from posting further material targeted at the child or apologise for posting the material. If the recipient of the notice fails to respond, the commissioner may seek an injunction or refer the matter to the police. The measures in these bills are, I believe, deserving of the support that has been received from across the chamber They will bring a better and more rapid response to bullying behaviours targeted at Australian children and in turn will help to keep Australian children safe online.

The government again thanks all parties who have contributed to the development of this legislation and looks forward to moving one step closer to encouraging a safer online environment for all Australian children. I want to acknowledge the work of Parliamentary Secretary Fletcher in the other place. Those who know Paul's professional background would probably agree that there are few people who have been better prepared, better skilled or better qualified to execute the duties of the office that he currently holds. In conclusion, I again thank colleagues for their contribution and thank all of those in the community who have made submissions and put forward propositions to seek to better achieve the objective that we all share, which is to see children, in whatever forum they operate, as safe as they possibly can be.

Question agreed to.

Bills read a second time.


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