Wednesday, 16 June 2021
Online Safety Bill 2021, Online Safety (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2021; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Online Safety Bill 2021 and the Online Safety (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2021. The Australian Greens agree that online safety is a significant issue and an important concern for Australian internet users. You don't have to be a parent to share concerns about children having access to graphic online content, the prevalence of sharing of intimate photos, exposure to cyberbullying—all without the respectful relationships and consent education that children need to navigate it.
I'm also keenly aware of the misogynistic abuse that people experience online. As the Greens spokesperson for women, I understand the national crisis of violence against women and their children and the growing scourge of online and technology facilitated abuse. I hear story after story of coercive and violent ex-partners continuing their abuse online: sending violent images, sharing intimate images without consent, bombarding social media with threatening messages and harassing their victims via email. Any abuse of women and children is completely unacceptable. The reported trebling of cyberabuse and image based abuse during COVID is a salutary warning that abusers will use all tools at their disposal to perpetuate their control over others.
The Australian Greens believe that we must protect vulnerable internet users and stamp out abuse and violence, online and offline. I also acknowledge the work being done by the eSafety Commissioner on these issues and the recognition in the budget of the need to tackle the rise in technology facilitated abuse. However, this bill, as it is currently drafted, is not the right solution to this very real problem. This bill has been rushed, and it gives far too much unfettered discretion to the unelected eSafety Commissioner. The bill as it stands has largely ignored the concerns raised in the over 350 submissions received in response to rushed consultation that happened over the Christmas break. Many of those submissions highlight that what is proposed goes beyond what is needed to address core concerns, while still failing to adequately address the more insidious forms of online and technology facilitated abuse that are emerging. It represents a missed opportunity to find a path through this complex area that will achieve appropriate protections.
For example, the submission from the Women's Services Network, also known as WESNET, notes that the bill will go some way towards improving online safety:
… but in our view underestimates the ways in which perpetrators of domestic and family violence can misuse technology to harm and abuse their victims using online mechanisms.
WESNET is concerned that the Online Safety Bill may be presented as an institution to technology-facilitated abuse by surveyors of domestic and domestic violence. In reality, the misuse of technology is far broader than the coverage of this bill. The dynamics of domestic and family violence are often also more complex and multi-faceted and require a much larger and coordinated response.
The amendments that my colleague Senator McKim will move aim to correct that balance, preserving the parts of the bill that provide additional protections for vulnerable internet users, strengthening the protection for digital rights, and removing the provisions likely to be weaponised against women and undermine the overall objectives of the bill.
Submissions from WESNET and Domestic Violence Victoria raise concerns that the bill as drafted will be easily circumvented by perpetrators and could be used against survivors by making false complaints, coercing children to make unsubstantiated complaints, reporting dating profile information from a former partner or by impersonating the survivor online. This is not the stuff of fantasy. The eSafety Commissioner has reported that, in more than a quarter of family violence cases, perpetrators pretend to be the adult victim-survivor online. The bill introduces wide powers for the eSafety Commissioner but does not balance these with adequate rights of appeal or ways to prevent vexatious abuse of the complaints process.
WESNET and DV Victoria also caution that 'ordinary person' and 'serious harm' tests set up in the bill fail to recognise the unseen harm done by perpetrators who are controlling and are skilled at using victims-survivors' personal experiences and fears against them. In a recent national survey undertaken by WESNET and Curtin University, many frontline experts working with victims-survivors observed that threats are often covert. They're targeted and they're harmful and they have meaning for the victim that doesn't seem abusive to another person. What might seem to an outsider like a benign message can in fact be a targeted threat. A request to pack the kids' Medicare card for their weekend with their dad 'in case they get hurt' might be seen as a responsible reminder if you ignore the family violence context in which this is a coded threat to harm the children. It is these complexities that are not adequately addressed by the current bill as it's currently drafted. This bill may be an attempt to improve online safety for victims-survivors of abuse, but, without amendment and redrafting, it does not create the measures needed to stamp out this abuse, and it has harmful unintended consequences on digital rights and online work.