Wednesday, 16 June 2021
Online Safety Bill 2021, Online Safety (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2021; Second Reading
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the Online Safety Bill 2021 and the transitional provisions that go with it. I was one of the members of the Senate committee that performed an inquiry into this bill and I have taken a keen interest in the development of this legislation. The bill will establish a complaints system for cyberbullying material targeted at Australian children, the non-consensual sharing of intimate images and cyberabuse material targeted at Australian adults, and it will establish the Online Content Scheme. It will also provide for the minister to determine basic online safety expectations for social media services, relevant electronic services and designated internet services.
It also creates a new complaints based system which allows for a removal notice scheme for cyberabuse targeted at an adult. It creates a specific and targeted power for the eSafety Commission to request or require an internet service provider to block access to materials that promote, incite, instruct in or depict abhorrent, violent conduct. These notices would be for time limited periods.
Labor strongly support the objective of this bill. We can't be clearer than that. But we do have genuine concerns about how long it took for this bill to be drafted after the minister was out there championing this bill for so long without it actually being drafted or introduced into this parliament. The consultation period, as we've heard, was lacking. The fact that the government didn't take into account many of the recommendations from the department or stakeholders continues to be a concern. Many stakeholders have raised multiple concerns about this bill, including: the functions and the powers of the oversight of the eSafety Commissioner, who is an unelected official; the clarity and breadth of the basic online safety expectations; the services in the scope of the online content regulation schemes; the clarity and proportionality of the blocking scheme; and the appropriateness of the Online Content Scheme. There have also been concerns about the response time required to remove notices if there is an objection.
The safety of Australians online is of paramount importance. I don't think any senator in this chamber would disagree with that. For many years Australians have been protected by laws to support online safety, and it is crucial that these laws are kept up to date and improved to keep up with technological changes. Labor support the consolidation of online safety laws into a new framework and we also support the new elements of the bill, which are the elements that attracted so much attention through the inquiry phase.
We live in an era that is increasingly spent online, which demands measures to mitigate online harm be kept up to date. Fundamentally, I understand the importance of the need to balance the right protecting against harmful speech and the right protecting free speech. That's not always a black-and-white thing for legislators to do. So I want to thank all of the people who contributed to the Senate inquiry and the senators who came along to that inquiry and asked a lot of detailed questions of the commissioner and of stakeholders about how this bill would impact on people, how it would impact on free speech and how it would be delivered. As senators, we seek to protect Australians from any harm, but we must also be aware of the impact that these provisions could have on freedom of expression. That is why you will see senators around the chamber today raising these questions in good faith whilst also supporting the objectives of this bill.
One of the issues raised with me during the Senate inquiry into this bill was the lack of transparency around the use of unprecedented powers by the commissioner. I understand that the government has now circulated, or will be circulating, amendments requiring the commissioner to report in their annual report the frequency of the use of these powers. This is a real win for the Senate inquiry process and for the submitters that contributed to the Senate inquiry, because that was a gaping hole in this legislation in relation to transparency and accountability to this parliament. Labor supports a holistic, multifaceted, layered approach, including safety by design, adult supervision, technological measures and education of both adults and children. While Labor will be supporting this bill, we're certainly not happy with how it has been delivered.
As I said, we acknowledge the concerns raised by stakeholders. As usual, the government has been big on announcement and slow on delivery. You won't be surprised to hear that it was almost 2½ years ago that the Briggs review recommended a single up-to-date online safety act, and here we are. The government was spruiking an online safety act the entire time, but we're only now getting to the point where we're able to debate this legislation in the parliament. In the lead-up to the May 2019 federal election, the Morrison government promised to introduce a bill, but we've had to wait two years before they could achieve that. It's interesting because, in an extraordinary move, the minister was actually taking credit for the act without having actually passed it through parliament first. In 2019, when faced with the rise of right-wing extremism, online hate speech and racism in Australia, an online safety act was the answer, but it hadn't actually been passed through parliament yet. The minister also used the bill in response to questions about what the government was going to do to curb graphic online social media content. In October 2020, when the minister published an op-ed about the new online safety act, the department was in budget estimates, admitting further delays to the bill because of pressures on drafting resources. So, while the government are congratulating themselves today, it has taken a long time to get here—too long, Labor would say.
During the consultation period, the department confirmed that there were 376 submissions on the exposure draft, but there were 56 issues with the bill identified by the department itself. Only seven amendments, of a technical nature, were made as a result. I note that one of those amendments presented to this chamber is actually to correct a spelling mistake in the word 'bullying'. When asked about the key operational aspects of the bill, the eSafety Commissioner called it 'a sausage still being made'. There's still a lot we don't know about how this bill will be implemented. Some 2½ years later, the government has proved incapable of conducting a process that satisfies stakeholders in terms of both process and substance.
What is even more disappointing is how the government cannot seem to hold its own party room to the same standards set out by the legislation we are voting on today. Those opposite have pointed out the government's so-called commitment to women's safety online. Even the minister himself was quoted as saying:
"The Morrison Government wants Australians to engage online confidently -- to work, communicate and be entertained, without fear of being viciously trolled or exposed to harmful content," …
But, when it comes to turning those words into action, to taking real action, well, the government is completely silent. Just recently, in my home state of Queensland, the very proud member for Redlands, Kim Richards, stood in the state parliament and tabled evidence of harassment of her and other women online by the government's very own member for Bowman, Mr Laming. She called on the LNP to do the right thing with regard to Mr Laming—to turn their words into action. Mr Laming has a long and proven track record of trolling and abusing his constituents online—