Senate debates

Monday, 19 June 2017


Enhancing Online Safety for Children Amendment Bill 2017; Second Reading

12:50 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I am pleased to continue my remarks, which are directed at amending the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Act 2015 to broaden the function and the title of the statutory Office of the Children's eSafety Commissioner, which we broadly support. In my initial contribution to this debate last week I said that we have significant concerns about the failure of this government to provide the commissioner with additional powers, and we certainly do not believe that the bill, as it is being advanced in this form, is adequate for dealing with that very significant social problem, a problem that continues to grow—namely, the issue of revenge porn.

You do not need to be paying too much attention to what is going on in the online space to appreciate that women, particularly those with a significant public profile, are currently the targets of enormous abuse, threats and intimidation online. What happens to a woman going into a police station to complain both online threats, abuse and intimidation, sadly, can be a little bit of a lottery. There is a lot of research showing that the experience of women in this situation does indeed vary enormously, depending on which station you make the complaint at or depending on whom the officer on watch was at the time.

In this respect, changing to an e-safety commissioner with a general remit is valuable, because we have an important culture change task in front of us. We really need to get the message through to law enforcement and to policymakers that this kind of online behaviour can and indeed does have significant impacts that can be just as significant as if these threats, abuse and intimidation were actually happening physically in real life. This includes expanded responsibility to take a leading role in combating the non-consensual sharing of intimate images.

While we support the expansion in this bill we believe that the most appropriate approach, indeed the best approach, for dealing with revenge porn would have been to criminalise these acts some time ago. At the Commonwealth level Australian laws have failed to keep pace with the new way that technology is actually being used to cause harm, particularly to women. The law should have been brought up to date and must be brought up to date as a matter of urgency. It is in that area that I think this bill does not meet the standards that we believe should hold.

Revenge porn is one of the ugliest manifestations of the trend towards online abuse of women and it is important that we in this parliament, as policymakers, send a strong message to the community that the sharing of private sexual images without consent is wrong, and it is wrong in the clearest possible terms. The easiest way to achieve this message and its reception would be to enact Commonwealth legislation to criminalise the behaviour.

While historically we considered family violence and abuse to be physical, psychological and emotional, in the 21st century family violence has also gone digital and it has serious impacts on the mental health of victims. Revenge porn can be distributed via a wide range of methods, from texting private images to friends, colleagues or family members, through to publishing images on social media sites, and even uploading images to commercial pornographic websites. Indeed, it takes just four clicks on a computer to upload a photo to Facebook. That is how quick and simple it is to share an explicit photo of someone, without his or her consent. Four clicks is all it takes to maliciously rob a person of their privacy and their human dignity.

The mental and emotional toll of revenge porn is high. Victims experience increased anxiety, and the research suggests they experience this anxiety acutely when they are doing activities that will subject them to online scrutiny—for example, having something like this come up when they are applying for a job with the stress that potential employers might come across the material, which is frequently published with the names and contact details of the victims.

Private sexual images and the threat to share them are often used as tools to control, humiliate and abuse individuals. While this practice is commonly referred to as 'revenge porn', it is clear that the sharing of these images without consent or threats to share them occurs in a much wider range of scenarios than just a simple desire to inflict revenge. As the Sexual Assault Support Service recognises, revenge is not the only motive to consider. Perpetrators of the behaviour may seek notoriety or financial gain or believe that they are providing entertainment for others. Some perpetrators may intend to cause emotional harm to their targets and humiliate them, while others will give little or not thought to potential impacts. The problem of revenge porn is complex and not only limited to the publishing of sexually explicit material intending to intimidate or humiliate people in the context of a relationship breakdown.

Laws criminalising revenge porn have been slow to emerge. A leading expert in the field, Dr Nicola Henry, said image-based abuse—and that is the broader term rather than just revenge porn—has emerged so rapidly as an issue that inevitably our laws and policies are struggling to catch up. The law can often lag behind advances in technology, but in this instance that lag time is causing real harm in our community. The status of revenge porn legislation in Australia is patchwork at best. Currently there is no federal legislation that criminalises revenge porn or image-based abuse. Most states do not currently have legislative mechanisms in place to protect victims from cyberabuse of this kind.

South Australia and Victoria are the only two states that have passed revenge-porn-specific legislation. Victoria passed the Crimes Amendment (Sexual Offences and Other Matters) Bill 2014 in August 2014. It criminalises non-consensual sharing and also provides protection to young people who take and share images of themselves consensually. Western Australia passed the Restraining Orders and Related Legislation Amendment (Family Violence) Act 2016 to criminalise cyberstalking and revenge porn.

The general point here is that the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions said that a Commonwealth offence targeting revenge porn would fill a gap within the exiting law. The Australian Federal Police said that uniformity in legislation so that they could investigate and charge perpetrators would be most helpful for police. There is plenty of advice, but the Turnbull government has delayed and delayed on this issue in a way that seems to me completely inexplicable.

There remains an urgent need for criminal penalties for offenders nationwide. RMIT and Monash University researchers surveyed close to 4½ thousand people about their experiences with image-based abuse. Their findings document the mass scale of victimisation and the impact it has on victims' lives. According to this research out of RMIT and Monash, one in five people who were surveyed had been victims of some kind of revenge porn. Young people age 16 to 19 were the most vulnerable, with one in three in that age group reporting some form of image-based abuse.

Minority groups were also found to be much more vulnerable, with one in two Indigenous Australians, one in two Australians with a disability and one in three LGBTIQ Australians reporting having suffered victimisation of this kind. Even the researchers themselves were surprised at the number of people who had their private sexual images distributed, taken without their consent or used against them in other ways. There is a clear need for parliament to send a very clear message to the general community that this behaviour is not only wrong but should attract a criminal sanction.

The study also found that women are more likely than men to be victims of image-based abuse by a former partner or intimate partner. Importantly, they are also more likely to fear for their safety as a result. Dr Anastasia Powell from RMIT, one of the lead researchers, noted:

Victims do report experiencing this as a form of … violation or sexual violence.

The researchers found that, upon discovering that their private images were publicised, victims felt that it constituted a violation of their sexual autonomy and dignity. This has obvious and difficult long-term repercussions. Overall, those who had suffered image-based abuse were almost twice as likely as nonvictims to report experiencing high levels of psychological distress.

This report, the first of its kind in Australia, recommends criminalising revenge porn at the federal level to provide cover for existing piecemeal state laws. It found overwhelming support for criminalising the distribution of private or invasive images without consent. Four in five of those surveyed agreed it should be a crime. Criminalising these acts would send a clear message that this behaviour will not be tolerated by this parliament or this country. If we change the law, this could be a first step in changing community perceptions of this conduct. The law can shape social norms and affect community attitudes, but it is up to parliamentarians like us to send the message that this behaviour is not accepted in the community. Commonwealth legislation on this matter will send a clear signal to young men and young women in Australia that this behaviour is just not on. The experts agree that we need to criminalise this behaviour now, and Labor calls on the government to act and to act now. Meanwhile, the Turnbull government just continues to talk about the problem of violence against women but fails to take adequate action.

This bill, sadly, is just another example of all talk and no action from the government. They have made no commitment to introducing or supporting Commonwealth legislation to criminalise this egregious behaviour. The government's excuse is COAG. Recently, indeed, the COAG Law, Crime and Community Safety Council released a national statement of principles relating to the criminalisation of non-consensual sharing of intimate images. However, even with this statement, there will still be no overarching Commonwealth law that can provide consistency across the nation, and there may be inconsistencies from state to state.

Labor went into the 2016 federal election promising Commonwealth legislation to criminalise revenge porn within the first hundred days of being elected. The Liberals did not step up and make a similar promise. Instead, their election commitment was a new complaints line. They are now devoting $4.8 million to developing a national online reporting tool to help counter the effects of non-consensual sharing of intimate images. While a new complaints process about so-called revenge porn is welcome, it is not in itself sufficient. There needs to be strong criminal law, making it clear that circulating nude pictures or videos of sex acts without someone's consent, or threatening to do so, is not acceptable. Labor will continue to ensure that so-called revenge porn is criminalised, including by the creation of appropriate Commonwealth offences. In the interim, we support the passage of this bill and commend the work of the former Children's eSafety Commissioner in driving cultural change, and the general powers of the body, in the community.


No comments