Senate debates

Wednesday, 3 December 2008


Internet Safety

7:19 pm

Photo of Mark ArbibMark Arbib (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Tonight I rise to bring to the attention of senators one of the biggest challenges concerning the protection of our children. It is very appropriate, given the valedictory speech from Senator Ellison, that I raise this issue, because I know he has a great interest in it. As a former minister for justice, Senator Ellison played a role in the fight against online predation.

I add my voice to the fine speeches made tonight and I thank Senator Ellison for his contribution to the country and to the state of Western Australia. While Senator Ellison can reflect on his achievements and time as a minister of the Commonwealth, he will make no greater contribution to humanity than the raising of his children—something that he has obviously recognised. I congratulate him for making the decision to spend more time with his family and I wish him and his family well for the future. The Senate has lost a gentleman and will be a lesser place for his departure.

The issue of online safety is one that affects almost every Australian child and teenager. Currently, there are over 2.4 million children between the ages of nine and 15 who use the internet regularly, with over 85 per cent of Australian teenagers using social networks such as Facebook and MySpace. ‘Generation next’ are at home on the internet. In fact, many have mastered it. Worryingly, some have become too comfortable with the net and are undertaking extremely risky behaviour, leaving themselves vulnerable to predators, identity theft and online bullying.

On Monday the bipartisan parliamentary group, Parliamentarians against Child Abuse and Neglect, PACAN, held a forum to view a new program called Smart Online Safe Offline, SOSO, which is designed to safeguard children on the internet. The program is run by the National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, NAPCAN, in partnership with Profero, a digital marketing company. The Smart Online Safe Offline program helps children by building resilience and giving them the skills and awareness they need to recognise threats online, thus empowering them to make the right decisions and the right choices when communicating with strangers in chat rooms or other online platforms. The seed funding for the program of $150,000 was provided by the federal government, and I feel it would be an injustice not to acknowledge and congratulate Senator Ellison, who initially approved the funding, and also the current minister, Bob Debus, who has maintained the government’s strong support.

We have previously had great difficulty in getting the online safety message through to our rebellious teenagers, but programs like SOSO offer great hope. The program, which first went live on 1 October 2008, is the first program that engages teenagers directly in their language and images within their social networking environments. Since going live two months ago it has captured the attention of nearly two million children—indeed, 1.9 million children, or 81 per cent of the target demographic, have viewed the program, and at least 10 per cent of these visitors used the ‘report a creep’ link to report someone online to the authorities. Those are fantastic figures. SOSO provides great hope and warrants further support and investigation by the government.

We should never underestimate how big this problem is and the complexity of the task to keep our children safe online. Digital technology has changed how we live, how we work and how we communicate, and it is evolving constantly. Just look at the explosion in Facebook and MySpace and you can quickly gauge the social revolution that is taking place on the net. As each new platform for communication and social interaction emerges, so too do the threats from online criminals and the difficulties for police and policy makers. Having talked to law enforcement officers from the Australian Federal Police, I have no doubt that the incidence of online crime against our children, in particular cybergrooming and predation, is rising quickly as paedophiles and perverts come to master the net and use it as a tool to extend their activities and to establish foul networks. The problem for parents is that these crimes can be happening at any time, anywhere, and there is very little they can do about it.

It is not an overdramatisation to say that in the net age you can have your doors and windows bolted shut but you can still have a predator in your house—online with your children. The figures back this up. I was shocked and dismayed by a British study quoted at the PACAN forum which showed that at least 70 per cent of children may have been cybergroomed online. For the uninitiated, ‘cybergrooming’ is when older people masquerade as teenagers to coerce information out of kids. Information may include details about where they live, where they go to school or even more personal details. Our children are giving too much information because they think they are safe. They are unaware of how many of these criminals are out there and how well organised they are. They are leaving themselves extremely vulnerable.

Programs such as the federal government’s Cybersmart, the Australian Federal Police’s Fireworks and now SOSO go a long way in educating our children about these threats and how to be safe whilst on the internet. As the saying goes, to be forewarned is to be forearmed. In relation to SOSO, Smart Online Safe Offline, I would like to congratulate NAPCAN and Profero for the outstanding work they are doing, and also thank their corporate partners such as Microsoft, Telstra, ninemsn, the Cartoon Network and many others who are confronting this issue head on and providing direct links to SOSO and free advertising to raise awareness. These organisations are showing what corporate responsibility truly means and are taking action to protect the integrity of the internet.

Over the next 10 years we will face many challenges as policy makers in relation to the internet. The criminal activities that are taking place now will require further action, further laws. As a parliament, this is a task on which we must work together. Great thanks should also go to the Australian Federal Police. Senator Ellison raised the fact that they are world leaders in online enforcement—and they are. They have had great success in tracking down and prosecuting online predators and paedophile rings. To the many officers who work in the online enforcement branch: thank you for the work you are doing to protect our children. We respect it and our families require it.

But politicians must also play their part. To that end PACAN has undertaken and will undertake an awareness campaign, urging every member of parliament to put SOSO on their website, Facebook or MySpace site and assist in helping to educate our teenagers and constituents. This is a huge task, but as politicians we have a responsibility. I would like to thank Senator Kroger and all the members of PACAN for the work they are doing on this issue and also again thank Senator Ellison for the work he has done as a minister and as a senator. I know it is something he feels deeply about, and he has been hugely successful. Thank you.