Senate debates

Wednesday, 16 June 2021


Online Safety Bill 2021, Online Safety (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2021; Second Reading

11:53 am

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Online Safety Bill 2021 and the Online Safety (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2021. These bills are important if we're able to tackle the sharing of illegal images and to address head-on the prevalence of revenge porn within our communities. Governments are almost always starting from behind when we're talking about technology. Technology advances travel so quickly, and governments are trying to catch their breath and keep ahead of the curve. Ideally, these bills continue to build on existing legislation schemes for online safety.

Labor welcomes funding to support online safety, with a particular focus on women and children. However, it is disappointing that this government cites the introduction of the Online Safety Bill 2021 that is now before parliament as evidence of its commitment to women's safety while it also permits the member for Bowman, Andrew Laming MP, to remain as a member of the LNP. He sits in the Liberal Party room, he sits on the government benches and he remains the chair of a parliamentary committee with the support of the Liberal and National parties.

As stated in a number of media reports recently, Mr Laming has a long history of trolling and abusing his own constituents on Facebook, which has undermined the safety and mental health of at least one woman. Mr Laming's conduct online is precisely what the proposed new adult cyberabuse scheme contained in this bill is designed to address—menacing, harassing or offensive material online. I think it's important that this is on the record and that those opposite are silent as to the actions of Mr Laming.

I recently read an article about a study by anthropologists about the use of smartphones and technology and how our phones are changing the human experience at a personal level and a group level. The anthropologists argue that our devices have become an extension of ourselves. Smartphones are now a transportable home. We use them to organise our schedules, find entertainment and communicate with family and friends. They are where we anchor our sense of identity and self. 'We have become human snails carrying our homes in our pockets,' they write, and:

The smartphone is perhaps the first object to challenge the house itself (and possibly also the workplace) in terms of the amount of time we dwell in it while awake …

It's an interesting argument. Smartphones have become such a pervasive part of our lives. And let's be honest: who can compete with a smartphone? The interactive capabilities of a smartphone on an intellectual level are superior to any human, in terms of the sheer amount and variety of information that is accessible from this device. The article goes on to argue that there needs to be a new etiquette to manage the digital age, because balancing a physical reality with a digital life causes frustration, disappointment or even offence, for those left staring at someone sitting hunched over their device.

We know that, while there is a prevalence of young Australians doing so, Australians of all ages are using their smartphones to transmit inappropriate images—images that can ruin people's lives. The Enhancing Online Safety Act 2015 operates to protect Australians from online harms such as non-consensual sharing of intimate images, but laws must also improve and ensure that the eSafety Commissioner has the ability to ensure that images are removed as quickly as possible—an advancement that all should applaud.

Labor supports measures to consolidate, update and enhance online safety laws for Australians. Online safety is an area of bipartisanship, and Labor is looking for bipartisanship regarding this policy area. It is too important not to get it right.

There are some concerns around due process, appeals, oversight and transparency requirements in relation to the novel adult cyberabuse scheme, given the important free-speech implications, and as to whether the powers given to the eSafety Commissioner could subvert the framework of safeguards put in place under the telecommunications assistance and access regime, including its warrant processes and the prohibitions it includes on actions that would introduce systemic weaknesses in the communications scheme.

Labor notes that it has been almost 2½ years since the Briggs review of October 2018 recommended a single, up-to-date online safety act. Given the significant passage of time, it is disappointing that the Morrison government has proved incapable of conducting a process that satisfies stakeholders in terms of process and substance.

The government has been spruiking this new online safety act for almost two years. In the lead-up to the May 2019 federal election, the Morrison government promised to introduce a new online safety act. In September 2019, the minister for communications spruiked the new online safety act in answer to questions about what the government was doing to keep Australians safe online, including in relation to the rise of right-wing extremists, online hate speech and racism in Australia following the Christchurch terrorist atrocity.

A year later, in September 2020, the minister again spruiked the non-existent online safety act in response to questions about what the government was doing to curb graphic content on social media platforms in the wake of a self-harm video on Facebook and TikTok. The minister's October 2020 op-ed kept the promise of a new online safety act alive, while his department at Senate estimates put the delay down to 'pressures on drafting resources'.

A number of stakeholders are concerned that the Morrison government introduced the bill into parliament on 24 February 2021, only eight days after consultation on the exposure draft of legislation concluded on 14 February 2021. The short time frame at the end of this drawn-out process has undermined confidence in the government's exposure draft consultation process, with a number of stakeholders concerned that submissions have not been considered properly. At the time the bill was referred to this inquiry on 25 February 2021, Labor senators had no visibility of either the number of submissions that had been made on the exposure draft or the range or nature of concerns raised in those submissions. In evidence to the inquiry, the department confirmed that 376 submissions on the exposure draft were received, uploaded and made available publicly only the day prior to the inquiry hearings. The department further advised that it had assessed the submissions and identified 56 issues that warranted further consideration by the minister, and that seven amendments of a technical nature were made to the bill as a result of that consideration. We note that the review of Australia's classification regulations—for which public consultation closed over a year ago, on 19 February 2020—is delayed and has fallen out of step with this reform process as a result.

On the major issue of free speech, Labor understands that the balance between free speech and protection against certain kinds of speech is a complex endeavour. We are concerned that this bill represents a significant increase in the eSafety Commissioner's discretion to remove material, without commensurate requirements for due process, appeals or transparency over and above Senate estimates annual reporting and AAT appeals. While supportive of a scheme relating to adult cyberabuse, we on this side find it curious that a government that has made repeated attempts to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act on the grounds that it unduly restricts free speech, despite the availability of defences in section 18D, is now seeking to rush through a bill that empowers the eSafety Commissioner with discretion to determine matters of speech in relation to adult cyberbullying without greater checks and balances.

The Morrison government talks a big game about its expectations of social media platforms, yet, to date, it has failed to do its job by updating Australia's online safety laws. While the government is right to expect digital platforms to offer more in terms of transparency, so too must the government be prepared to provide transparency around decision-making, particularly on matters that engage with human rights. For this reason, we on this side recommended that the government consider further amendments to clarify the bill in terms of its scope and to strengthen due process, appeals, oversights and transparency requirements, given the important free-speech and digital-rights considerations it engages.

I would encourage those opposite to stop slouching over their smartphones and have a good, intent, face-to-face conversation with those in this chamber, so that we can protect more Australians from the misuse of smartphones. If they do that, we can make this a truly bipartisan improvement to the lives of all Australians, to ensure technology enriches our lives instead of determining our lives. We have all read on social media or heard through other forms of media about the devastating effect that these faceless people have and the anonymity that they use to bully, harass and embarrass people through social media. As with all new interventions—and we know, as I said, how quickly technology moves—we have to always ensure that people are protected from bullies, from people who want to try and intimidate them, from people who want to embarrass them, and from people who want to use this technology for illegal activities and for abusing people.

I urge people in this chamber, and in particular the government, to support our amendment. I therefore support the bill.


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