Monday, 20 June 2011
Cyber-Safety Committee; Report
I present an interim report of the Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety, High-wire act, cyber-safety and the young. I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the report.
That the Senate take note of the report.
It has been an honour to chair the parliament's Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety and to be tabling this report today, which is the culmination of 13 months work. We know that cybersafety is a very important issue for all those who enter the online environment. It is my earnest wish that this report will make a difference and, as a result of the work carried out by the committee, ensure this environment is safer for all users but especially young Australians.
The committee consulted far and wide and heard evidence from Facebook, Yahoo, ninemsn, the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Institute of Criminology, parent and teacher groups, education department representatives and leading academic experts. We conducted three roundtable hearings and seven public hearings, and, importantly, we listened to the concerns and views of young Australians—in fact, 33,751 young Australians. Two online surveys on cybersafety, one for 13- to 18-year-olds and one for 12-year-olds and under, were conducted. These young people not only completed the survey but also contributed more than 60,000 comments, many of which have been included in the report. In addition, the committee held face-to-face school forums and a Q&A style session where students told us exactly what they think. I take this opportunity to thank all of the thousands of young people who generously shared their stories and views both in our online surveys and in the forums. Their assistance was invaluable.
I can assure the Senate that we were astonished by the response to our 'Are you safe?' online survey—33,751 respondents represents the largest online survey conducted on cybersafety in Australia and one of the largest in the world. These surveys gave us unprecedented insight into the views of Australia's young people, their support networks, their cybersafety awareness and their online activities. The majority, 80.7 per cent of respondents were aged between 10 and 15 years. Survey results showed that 62.9 per cent of respondents aged 13 to 18 felt that more could be done to make the internet safer. Sixty per cent of those participating in the same age group believe that cyber-bullying is on the increase. Most of us in this chamber are what are known as digital immigrants. We have not grown up with technology. We have adapted to it and we have learnt it as required. This is in contrast to young Australian digital natives, the majority of whom have never known a world without the internet and feel they could not live happily without social networking sites or their mobile phone. To ignore this ignores the reality. Some statistics make this point clearly. In Australia, in March 2011, Facebook had nearly 11 million active users who had visited the site within the past 30 days. Over nine million users visit it every week and over seven million use it every day. There are more mobile phones in Australia than people. Seventy-eight per cent of households have computer access and 72 per cent have access to the internet.
Young Australians are growing up in a highly connected world. They use multiple media platforms for gaming, chat rooms, SMS and social media, and it is exciting for them. While many young Australians are aware of cybersafety and have incorporated it into their everyday activities, the federal government was sufficiently concerned about cybersafety to establish this committee in March 2010. The inquiry's terms of reference were sufficiently broad to enable online risks to be examined, including cyber-bullying, abuse of children online, exposure to illegal and inappropriate content, inappropriate social and health behaviours, identity theft and breaches of privacy.
This report focuses on how young people can be empowered to connect to the internet and use technologies with confidence, knowing that they can use them safely, ethically and with full awareness of the risks and benefits. It recognises that, while online communication is exciting and simple, there are potential risks that young people and parents alike must learn to recognise and address. From our consultations it is clear that younger generations hold the key to their own online safety and that their knowledge and risk management strategies are frequently undervalued. Young Australians want to be in control of their own experiences in the online environment through better education, knowledge and skills, and they want cybersafety messages to be age-appropriate and to value their existing knowledge. This is what they told us. At the same time, they told us they want significant adults in their lives, such as parents, carers and teachers, to be better informed about the online world so that they can turn to them when difficult issues arise. Also, the media needs to be educated on issues of cybersafety.
The online environment is an integral part of modern economic and social activities and it is a vast resource of education, information, communication and entertainment. The evolution of new technologies is diversifying the ways in which especially young Australians connect with each other and the world. For most users, most of the time, their online experiences are positive. It is the committee's hope that its recommendations will ensure that the online environment will become even safer and that potential dangers are reduced. As adults we need to appreciate the wonder of these new technologies while ensuring young Australians are safe from potential risks. The risks may come when young internet users make no distinction between new media and their offline relationships. It is the case that some children are vulnerable both offline and online, so it is essential that we are alert to the risks as well as the great benefits of the digital economy.
The breadth and depth of material in the submissions we received was astounding and the evidence given by witnesses was invaluable to the committee. On behalf of all the other members of the committee, I would like to thank the witnesses for their attendance and for submitting themselves to our questions. We have made 32 recommendations which we believe would go a considerable way to improving cybersafety for Australia's young people if they are adopted.
Parents and carers have ultimate responsibility for educating and protecting their children, including in the online environment. The role that they play in cybersafety education is vital and, while many resources are available, it is not always clear where they can be found. We are concerned to assist those parents and carers whose familiarity with technology is not great and we have made recommendations that may assist this group. A number of other recommendations seek to strengthen the position of schools and teachers in dealing with cyber-bullying and other online abuses, including cyber-bullying of teachers themselves. Other important recommendations deal with the establishment of a greater degree of cross-jurisdictional cooperation between the various regulatory and law enforcement agencies.
In closing, I would like to express my thanks to my colleagues on the committee and the deputy chair in the other place, Mr Alex Hawke MP. I also thank my staff, particularly Kyle and Joan. Finally, to the secretariat: James Catchpole, Cheryl Scarlett, Lauren Wilson and Patrick Regan, I sincerely thank you for your support, expertise and dedication, and for all of the extra hours you put into this report. The ongoing work of this committee is important in that the benefits of the online environment will be maximised while potential risks to individuals will be reduced. I commend report to the Senate.
With customary modesty, the one person that the chair, Senator Wortley, did not thank, which I am now very pleased to stand up and do, is herself for the enormous amount of work that she put into this report. It is quite a fitting tribute. I did not get the opportunity the other night during valedictories to speak about Senator Wortley, but I think this is a really remarkable piece of work and it is a great contribution to a very important debate. I would also like to join with the remarks of the Australian Greens in thanking in particular the young people who made this report what it is. The committee, faced with the enormous range of threats and potential threats in the online environment, chose to confine itself in this report largely to challenges facing young people. We learnt many surprising things, particularly from young people and their advocates in all sectors of society, from parent groups, school groups and so on. I think this report really does reflect the huge amount of work that was put into it and the evidence that we took. I hope it reflects the kinds of views that people wanted to give to us. You will notice the large number of recommendations that reference the issue of education. I think if there was one single thing that the committee found and one simple message, really, that springs from this report it is the importance of education for young people and also, perhaps a little bit surprisingly, for others. In the context of Senator Wortley's comments on digital natives and digital immigrants, we did discover that many young people make no distinction at all between the online world and the offline. Those worlds are fused and it is really only people like us who talk about concepts like cyberbullying because, in fact, the medium itself has become so seamless with people's lived experiences that there is really no formal distinction made by kids in school or young people right up through university about threats in the online and offline worlds.
That was reflected in the sense that people from disadvantaged backgrounds and people who, at the moment, might fall on the wrong side of the digital divide—anybody from homeless people and Aboriginal people in disadvantaged communities to people from non-English-speaking backgrounds—who get online will tend to find that the disadvantage follows them there. Kids are more likely to be cyberbullied if they are already being bullied in the playground. The distinction really only exists in the minds of the MPs who set out to find what this threat of cyberbullying is really all about.
I am profoundly grateful to the people who spelt out in great detail to the digital immigrants who conducted the inquiry how life appears to people who—many of them—have no memory of before the internet became ubiquitous. In a way, the report educated politicians as to the true nature of the things that people grapple with online; people who have been there for their entire lives.
I do not want to overshadow the extraordinary opportunities there. This report did focus on the darker side of the internet; as human society has its dark side that is, of course, reflected in the online environment. That was where we went and that was what we sought out. But, obviously, we did not seek to undermine the amazing opportunities for connection and for social bonds that are post geographical, and which transcend the neighbourhoods that we grew up in in many ways. There are huge opportunities for education and cross-cultural contact which are probably new in history, really, given that we are not just communicating with other Australians but with connected communities right around the world.
One of the things that I expected this report to be about was the filter, because we got this inquiry up in the tail end, I suppose, of the debate on the government's proposal for mandatory filtering of the internet. It took two or three hearings before the subject was even raised. I found that really interesting—that for people in the child protection community, people involved and deeply connected with issues of cybersafety, it just was not relevant. It just did not come up in the top 10 set of issues that people were concerned about. So there is very little of it in the report; there is no recommendation. There is a bit of evidence from both sides of the debate that I think probably helped to further the issue a little bit, but basically it has been relegated to the position of irrelevance that it deserves in this report, as it has in the broader debate. I think this is helpful.
It does remind us that when we talk about threats to people online we just tend to think of people trying to steal our identities, credit card fraud and the various other kinds of criminal activity that are conducted. That is a reminder to us that some of the threats to people online come from our own government, and that we need to be watchful right across the spectrum.
I would also like to add my comments to those of Senator Wortley in thanking the staff, who did an enormous amount of work putting this together. Again, I think it is a real credit to the chair; it is a fitting legacy to leave, and I hope that we can build on the work that has been done.
Question agreed to.