Senate debates

Tuesday, 3 March 2015


Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill 2014, Enhancing Online Safety for Children (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2014; Second Reading

6:08 pm

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

The way people connect and communicate with each other is constantly evolving. Modern technology has opened the door to friendships, education, health care and recreational opportunities that were previously not even conceived of. The previous, Labor, government played a crucial role in modernising Australia's technological infrastructure by pursuing the development of the National Broadband Network, a network designed to provide Australians and our economy with world-leading broadband access. Unfortunately, the current government's mismanagement and ideological obsession and opposition to equality of access to broadband services has hampered the development of this ambitious infrastructure. However, the Australian community continues to progress at a pace beyond the glacial crawl of those opposite, and the opportunities that modern communication technologies present are being seized upon, particularly by young Australians. These young Australians are the first generation to be true digital natives. They build complex and rewarding relationships over many tens of thousands of kilometres. They seek out and take advantage of educational opportunities from the finest institutions in the world. They purchase and consume products from international markets, irrespective of traditional transport, currency and language barriers.

But while this new world of technology exposes our children to amazing opportunities, it also exposes them to risks that we must work hard to mitigate. Bullying has always been an issue in our communities. While parents, teachers and community leaders make every effort to protect our children from the social dysfunction of bullying, there are environments in which our capacities are limited. Indeed, most kids have unfairly been a target of bullying in the schoolyard at some point. But bullying no longer stops at the school gate. Our homes are no longer the haven for our children that they once were for us. The rise of social media and online communication may have brought new opportunities to our living rooms, but computer screens and mobile devices can also be a vehicle for hurtful and relentless harassment.

Cyberbullying is now so prevalent in our community that research from the University of New South Wales suggests that one in five of our kids between the ages of 10 and 17 report being subjected to some form of online bullying and abuse. That is one in five kids, despite cyberbullying being one of the most underreported types of abuse. The correct figure could actually be much higher. That is a horrific statistic. How many loving parents are unaware that their children may be suffering the anguish and humiliation that comes with ongoing bullying? How many are unaware that this abuse is occurring under their own roofs? Many of the perpetrators of this cyberbullying thrive in an unregulated environment, without the threat of consequences for their behaviour. Many believe that they can behave online very differently to the way that society requires them to behave in the physical world. Cyberbullies typically target many victims, and even when these brave victims come forward to report the abuse the bullying can often continue.

In 2010 the then Labor government established the Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety with the aim of improving cybersafety measures. The committee's 2011 report, entitled High-wire act: cyber-safety and the young,outlined a comprehensive approach to adapting to these new online bullying threats. Throughout this process and since, Labor has continually taken action to address cyberbullying and further protect our children against this threat. The Australian Federal Police's child protection team, the Australian Communications and Media Authority's Cybersmart program, and the ThinkUKnow website all represent existing initiatives. We have always made the point that such efforts must be supported by appropriate industry and community consultation, which is why we referred this bill to the Senate committee.

The bill will establish a children's e-safety commissioner with powers to address cyberbullying targeted at Australian children. Children, parents, teachers and friends will now be able to report incidences of cyberbullying to the commissioner, who can investigate and take appropriate action against the perpetrators. Furthermore, the bill creates a framework for the commissioner and social media services to work together to deny bullies the means to offend. Through a system of service classification and appropriate reporting mechanisms, material that represents cyberbullying can be removed and restricted.

The bill sets out the expectation of the parliament that these social media service providers will comply with basic online safety requirements. These requirements include standards for conditions of use, a complaints scheme and relevant contact persons. These powers and frameworks represent the most appropriate option for addressing cyberbullying and protecting our children. They complement the educational programs aimed at preventing the occurrence of cyberbullying that Labor already established. Our approach provides a range of options that not only protect vulnerable children from becoming the subject of online harassment but also can provide support for people who practise inappropriate bullying behaviours. The bill continues the work of the Labor government in developing adaptive methods to protect our children against online threats. We all have a responsibility to address this critical issue in our online communities, and Labor supports these continued efforts to reduce as much as possible the risk of cyberbullying.

Labor will not be supporting the amendment proposed by Senator Xenophon. The issue of grooming, which Senator Xenophon's amendment goes to, is obviously a very serious issue. Labor senators share Senator Xenophon's concerns and would be more than happy to work constructively with him to properly address this issue. However, there has been no consultation or engagement on this amendment and no time for the opposition to consider its implications. While we appreciate Senator Xenophon's intentions, we are not in a position to support his amendment without being given enough time to consider the broader implications.

The telecommunications specific provisions in this schedule of the Criminal Code are complex and carefully drafted in a way that gives effect not only to the code itself but also to relevant state and territory law. Any consideration of amending these provisions must be undertaken in consultation with a range of law enforcement agencies and our state and territory counterparts. At such a late hour in the legislative passage of the bill, this simply cannot occur. It is for these reasons that Labor does not support Senator Xenophon's amendment—but we do support the bill.

6:17 pm

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to provide some comments tonight on behalf of the Australian Greens. I also refer to the report that Senator Cameron referenced, High-wire act: cyber-safety and the young. That was a really useful exercise, and I want to acknowledge our former colleague in here, former senator Dana Wortley, from South Australia, who chaired this inquiry. I think it was later picked up by Senator Bilyk. I think this was the first time this parliament had engaged with issues such as those canvassed in the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill and that Senator Cameron has just gone through at length. One of the most valuable things about this report is that it involved kids directly. We were told, first of all, that nobody really uses the term cyberbullying—it is just bullying. In fact, it is a bit of a giveaway if you are dealing with someone who is not really certain what they are talking about and they are appending the word 'cyber' to things. It is not simply a case of cyberbullying being of some completely different character—it is just bullying. The problem is that it is full spectrum and it can follow you home—it can follow you all the way into your bedroom and, in some instances, there can be absolutely nowhere to hide. We discovered that some things that might seem immediately intuitive are not as appropriate as they first appear. For example, if a kid is quite clearly being bullied through these media platforms the intuitive thing to do is to cut the connection and get them off the platforms in the first place. That was described to us as being like amputation—you lose your entire social network and you are cut off not just from the malicious behaviour but also from sources of support, from your friends and people who might otherwise be able to look after you.

The report has been a useful exercise, but one of the things I will note is that of the 32 recommendations that this committee put to the Australian parliament not a single one of them related to the establishment of an e-safety commissioner. One of the things I want to highlight tonight concerns the risk of invoking state arbitration of what could effectively be seen as schoolyard disputes. There is a reason that there are not any recommendations in this report that go to that—although Senator Xenophon at the time was canvassing, for example, an online ombudsman and the Labor Party at the time was canvassing an internet filter. But some of these things that might look like a magic bullet for issues as subtle and fine-grained as kids being abused are no substitute for more complex, more nuanced education programs. In fact, if there was any way at all that I could summarise the recommendations that did appear in this report, which we worked on the months, it would be to refer to education and empowerment. This is empowerment of kids to take control of the platforms and the devices through which they are being bullied and abused, and education for the kids themselves, which is obviously part of empowerment, as well as for parents and the entire school community so that teachers, counsellors and chaplains are aware of the ways in which this very old behaviour of victimising and bullying and picking on kids is being channelled through communications platforms that are likely to be totally unfamiliar to legislators, to the people who drew up this bill and to the people who will debate it tonight. So education and empowerment is the key area, and you will see a number of recommendations that went to that—not in a vague, airy-fairy sense but with some quite specific proposals for ways in which we can help kids protect themselves.

The second issue concerns privacy, and probably the less said about this government's attitude, supported by the Labor Party, to privacy the better. The government are proposing a bill at the moment which would effectively obliterate privacy, so they should read recommendations 4 through 12 and maybe rethink their mandatory data protection proposition. Probably the least said about that the better. The last issue concerns inequality. A sense that came through very strongly from those who gave evidence to us was that if kids are being bullied in real life it is entirely likely that they are also getting bullied on online platforms. Inequality actually plays a huge part in that. Access to educational opportunities feeds into the whole debate around inequality in Australian society, which, again, might seem a bit counterintuitive.

The joint select committee conducted three separate roundtables. We heard from industry, academics, law-enforcement agencies, non-government organisations, parents, professional bodies and unions. We held seven hearings in total. As I said, I think the most significant contribution was made by young people, who were consulted by two online surveys in which the views of 33,750 young people below the age of 18 years were heard. Then some school forums were hosted, as well—not conducted by the committee but by people trained in running those kind of forums. The need for kids and young people to be in control of their own online experience is through better education, knowledge and skills. That was the first big one. There was enhancing privacy and, then, helping parents, carers, teachers and those who deal with young people to become more informed so that they are not doing things like, for example, confiscating a phone, which then cuts a young person off from the rest of their social life.

The first recommendation of the report was that the then Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth consider the feasibility of assisting preschools and kindergartens to provide cyber safety educational programs for children as of their development activities. Again, that is not as dramatic as being able to announce the launch of a new commissioner. In conversations with the minister—and I thank him and his staff for providing the briefing on the bill—I found it very difficult to read. I guess time will tell whether this person is going to be deluged—whether they are going to need a very big call centre, indeed, as kids seek to mediate schoolyard disputes using the powers of the Commonwealth government—or whether it is going to be dead silence. Whether there is actually to be much work for this person to do at all, I find that, actually, a very difficult matter to read.

I also struggle to understand whether a measure like this is actually going to be as valuable. It is just going back to some of the bread-and-butter stuff—less glamorous, to be sure—that would actually help kids protect themselves and those around them. Teachers, carers and parents, in particular, can actually help give them the tools that they are going to need.

One of the recommendations was that the Attorney-General work with state and territory counterparts to develop a nationally consistent legislative approach to add certainty to the authority of schools to deal with incidents of appropriate student behaviour to other students out of school hours. There is that question there about the continuum of this malicious behaviour. At what point do schools cease to be responsible? The school or the teaching community might consider themselves responsible if something horrible is occurring on a playground on school premises. But, of course, these social networks extend in a very diffuse way after school has finished. In my understanding—and the minister might like to correct the record if I have got this wrong—that has not happened. Senator Nash, I do not know whether you have carriage of this one for the government or whether it would be somebody else.

Given that I think most of us in the course of this debate are going to be relying on a high-wire act on this report that was tabled in June 2011, can the government tell us—and this is not a partisan thing, because you have been here for only 18 months or so—how many of the recommendations of this report were actually taken up by this government or the previous government before you jumped out and introduced an initiative that was not recommended. That would be something that everybody in this debate would be interested to know.

The report did explicitly deal with the desire to have an online ombudsman. So it was not an e-safety commissioner, as such, that was being discussed. The proposal Senator Xenophon put forward—and he will correct the record if I have this wrong—to have an online ombudsman is probably a bit of a analogue, I guess, for where we have ended up. A fairly large range of organisations opposed this proposal—the ACT Council of P&C Associations, the Australian Library and Information Association, the Australian Federal Police, the Association of Independent Schools of South Australia and even the department at the time. Tech organisations, such as Telstra, Yahoo!7 and the Internet Industry Association did not outright oppose it but they did express concern at the time.

It goes to the issue of whether you want broad and deep initiatives to help kids protect themselves in real life against the very real threats that nobody would downplay, or do you want to cut a ribbon on a new public servant and a call centre? I guess we have to leave that question hanging there, because the idea did not actually get much favour when it was canvassed in some detail in 2011.

That is where I will leave it. This is a really serious issue. I look forward to hearing further from the minister and her staff tonight when we get to the committee stage, because I understand some amendments might have been circulated. This is one of those examples where it was well worth your time being on a committee—even though it went for months. People left their politics at the door and just engaged with kids, parents, people in the field, within the teaching community and in the wider field—psychologists, researchers and their staff—and came up with what we, collectively, thought was a damn good report. So I would like to know if we are going to get a commissioner. I hope we can hear back over the course of time how much work there is for this person and whether they are finding themselves mediating schoolyard disputes or whether there is actually a really valuable role to be played here.

I am vastly more interested in what happened to the body of this work. What happened to these recommendations that were put forward? This was a unanimous report with crossbench, Labor and coalition contributions that were valuable right across the board. What happened to this work? The e-Safety Commissioner is not in this document but a lot of other really valuable stuff is. I would be very interested to follow that up as the debate progresses.

6:28 pm

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I, too, rise tonight to talk on the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill 2014 and Enhancing Online Safety for Children (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2014. It is really pleasing to be standing in this place and to hear Senator Ludlam acknowledge in his contribution that this is an issue that is above politics. I think that is extremely important. These bills were referred to committee—on that I chair. We received support from all sectors who submitted information in relation to this particular legislation. They came back to us with suggestions that were reasonably unanimous. We have been able to be reasonably quick in returning this piece of legislation and the report back to this chamber for consideration tonight.

I will just quickly touch on the consequential amendment bill, which was necessitated by a number of things, particularly in relation to the commissioner. Other bills needed to be amended to enable the commissioner to have the power to gather the kind of information that they would need in order to administer their role. Largely, the consequential amendments bill does little more than administratively tidy up details in other acts to make sure that the commissioner has the powers that they need to be able to fulfil the role that the substantive bill is requiring them to do.

The substantive bill is a very important bill. It is acknowledged by Senator Cameron and Senator Ludlam that this is above politics and is extremely important. I suppose it is stating the bleeding obvious to say that children these days live a very different world than what we lived in when we grew up. They are so much more technologically savvy. They interact with each other on an almost permanent and constant basis with online activities, whether it is playing games or talking on phones or just doing Snapchat or a whole heap of things that did not even exist when we were at school. Whilst this gives children an amazing opportunity to be able to be far more advanced in their ability to research and gain information about things, it does present us with an extraordinary challenge into the future, as we have quite clearly seen through the information we have received on this bill.

The government made a commitment coming into the election coming into the election in 2013 that it would address this particular issue. I would also like to acknowledge the extraordinary amount of work that was done in this place. Senator Bilyk in particular, who is in the chamber at the moment, did an extraordinary amount of work on her committee, to which Senator Ludlam has referred.

Subsequent to the very detailed findings—and the huge amount of research that the committee undertook and the report that was subsequently brought down to which Senator Ludlam has constantly referred—we all have to acknowledge this is an extraordinarily dynamic space. It is a very fast changing space. A matter of minutes, almost, in this space means that things are likely to change. When we came into government we made the decision we were going to do something substantial about the issue of the potential harm to our young children because of online activities, and we certainly did use the report that Senator Bilyk and her team had spent many months putting together. In using that, we then decided it was appropriate to go out and do additional and quite extensive research and consultation. The recommendations that we have come back with after doing that consultation are, broadly speaking, three. One is the establishment of an online e-Safety Commissioner and the development of an effective complaints system, which we believe required legislation to back it so that we could ensure the quick and effective removal of harmful information from social media sites. Another recommendation was to examine the existing Commonwealth legislation to determine whether we actually needed a new, simpler, cybersafety bullying offence to be put in place.

The first report that was undertaken was to deal with the prevalence of cyberbullying. The second report addressed the question of how much awareness children actually have of the current laws that govern cyberbullying. The third report commissioned by the government was a survey on schools to find out how schools were dealing with this issue.

In January 2014, the Department of Communications released a public discussion paper. Over 80 submissions were received, from a huge range of stakeholders—including, local community organisations, industry, schools, government bodies, legal bodies, academics and individuals. The feedback in that process has enabled the government to refine and develop this particular piece of legislation so that it really does reflect the wider interests and concerns of the community.

One of the things that came out very clearly in that research was that there was definitely a preference for measures to be restorative and consultative and to use counselling as a means to deal with this issue. As Senator Ludlam rightly pointed out, 'cyberbullying' is just an adjective in front of another word—bullying. The word 'bullying' is obviously the most important thing that we are dealing with here. It is just that we are dealing with a different set of circumstances and a different set of mechanisms and a different set of instruments by which this bullying is taking place. So in the first instance we need to accept that the issue of bullying is the primary focus of what we are doing. In many instances of real-life bullying, it was found that dealing head-on with the issue with the bully—through counselling and working out how to deal with that person and bringing them through the process—is a better way to deal with it.

One thing we need to remember here is that we are dealing with children, and children's processes and reasoning are nowhere near as developed as an adult's. We found, even through our justice system, that it is often better to deal with juveniles—particularly, in some instances, quite young juveniles—in a much more consultative way and counselling way than one where we come down with punitive measures.

In addition, the favoured outcome, in terms of being able to deliver this particular issue in the online environment—we are not talking about just bullying but specifically the online environment for bullying—was the creation of an e-Safety Commissioner. The most important thing they wanted was to have the e-Safety Commissioner have the capacity to quickly respond to any information brought to their attention that is found to be considered cyberbullying, so that they can rapidly take it down. The role of commissioner was very clearly intended to be online, with the skills and the like on the basis of an online environment. The message we got from the community was absolutely loud and clear: the community wanted the government to act in this space and to help keep our Australian kids safer online. The policy to enhance online safety for children is an election commitment and this particular suite of bills is in response to that.

In the evidence received through this process, a number of issues came out quite clearly as being required. Firstly, that to be able to articulate and demonstrate the harm caused by cyberbullying actually required legislation. Obviously, if it had been found that the harm required some other means of dealing with it, then it would be pointless and senseless to come up with another piece of legislation. However, the information we got from the people who made submissions to this particular inquiry undertaken by the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee and also through the research that the department and agencies undertook before this bill was formulated very clearly articulated that there is harm caused by cyberbullying and that it was significant enough for us to warrant additional legislation.

It is quite scary to read the statistics of what was found through this research. The best estimate of prevalence of cyberbullying over a 12-month period is about 20 per cent of Australians, aged between eight and 17, with some studies putting that figure as low as six and others as high as 40. So we are talking about a very substantial component of young people—20 per cent of young people between the age of eight and 17—who are being bullied. This pretty much reflects other studies that have occurred in the international space. ACMA actually found that 21 per cent of kids, aged between 14 and 15, and 16 per cent of 16- and 17-year-olds had reported cyberbullying at some time during that period. Quite unsurprisingly, the research found that the highest incidence of cyberbullying occurred on social media. But, most alarmingly, it also found that the prevalence of cyberbullying had rapidly increased since the behaviour first became evident. So it is quite significant and if you extrapolate those figures from percentages into real numbers it becomes quite terrifying. It would mean that the estimated number of children or young people who were victims of cyberbullying in 2013 is about 463,000, and around 365,000 of those kids were in the 10- to 15-year-old age group. It is a very significant problem and I think anybody who has children would understand that this is a real issue. We probably took it for granted when we were kids that if you said something rude to somebody it was immediately forgotten; it was not recorded for all time on somebody's iPhone or iPad to be used at a later date.

The proposal in this legislation is that the e-safety commissioner is created as an independent statutory officer within ACMA. The key function of the commissioner will be to administer the complaints system for cyberbullying material that is targeted at an Australian child. The commissioner will also be tasked with promoting and helping to improve online safety for children, to coordinate the government's activities, to accredit children's online safety awareness programs, to make financial grants for online safety and to formulate guidelines for facilitating the resolution of cyberbullying incidents.

Senator Ludlam made comments about the need for an education program as this particular issue becomes part of our life, as are the internet and social media. In response, I would say that an education program needs to be implemented to make sure that our children have got the necessary tools and skills to be able to cope with these things and to be able to manage them. A number of roles that have been proposed for the e-safety commissioner in this particular bill target areas about providing the information and being able to develop and work with the community, schools, children and parents to make sure that they have the necessary skills. It was for this reason that it is proposed that the qualifications of the commissioner be set in legislation. We see just how terribly important it is that the e-safety commissioner has the skills that are going to be needed to deliver a really good outcome. I think the right skills will enable some tremendously good outcomes.

First and foremost, the e-safety commissioner needs to have a very deep and good understanding of the internet and how it is used and, obviously, the use of social media in that space. All of us in here who are a bit older—some of the younger staffers in here probably understand way better than the rest of us oldies as senators—do not really understand very well how the internet and social media work. I see Senator Cameron smiling over there—maybe you can show me how to do it later, Senator Cameron!

The e-safety commissioner certainly needs to have a very good understanding of how this particular piece of technology works. They also need to have really strong credibility with the social media service. Obviously, they will constantly have to interact with various social media, so the commissioner will need to have the necessary integrity and credibility to be able to work with that particular sector.

Understanding child welfare would obviously be extremely desirable, but in the context of making sure that you end up with the very best person we need to be very careful that we do not become too prescriptive about exactly what this particular person has to do, down to so many different qualifications, because we might find out that no such person exists. However, as I said, the qualifications of the commissioner have been clearly identified as one of the very significant things that need to be dealt with in order to ensure that this particular role provides the outcome we are seeking. Similarly, the decision about locating the commissioner within ACMA—the communications media regulator—was for the reasons that we stated above about what the qualifications needed to be. It is proposed that the commissioner would reside within the media's regulatory body for very similar reasons. There were some people who thought that the national children's rights commissioner or the Human Rights Commission should have taken on the role, but this legislation proposes that it be located with ACMA because it is a communications matter and it is substantially about regulation. It was believed that ACMA would be well suited to support the commission, with significant synergies in respect of existing functions that already occur within ACMA, and the online content scheme which has a strong focus on child sexual abuse material. So there was a level of similarity there.

The other thing this legislation seeks to do is to define what cyberbullying actually is and how one goes about making a complaint. Any Australian child can make a complaint to the commissioner if he or she believes that they are the target of cyberbullying material. The complaint can also be made by the child's parent, a guardian or any other person whom the child authorises to make a complaint on their behalf. The complaint can be made in relation to material provided on a social media site or by other electronic communications. It could be an email, it could be a text message, it could be Snapchat or it could be online gaming. Material will be considered to be cyberbullying if it is intended or is likely to have the effect of seriously threatening, intimidating, harassing or humiliating an Australian child. It provides a very broad scope of what cyberbullying is, and there really is nothing whatsoever to stop any child who believes that they are a victim of this behaviour from being able to take the matter up with the commissioner.

There will be a two-tiered system for the removal of cyberbullying material, depending on the type of social media outlet on which it is found, and the larger the size of the media, the harder regulation will be that applies to it. Tier 1 will be on more of a cooperative basis, for example, trying to explain to the social media outlet that material is probably not appropriate and taking a much more soft approach, because it is probably considered in this particular space that there is not a great deal of intent—probably something that has been misused. In contrast, tier 2 services that fail to remove cyberbullying material within 48 hours of being given notice by the commissioner will actually face a penalty. A specific social media service may be declared in a legislative instrument to be a tier 2 service, particularly if it is a large social media service, or a provider can choose to declare themselves as a tier 2 social media provider.

The two-tier system provides a light touch scheme in circumstances where social media services have an effective complaints mechanism already in place, but it enables the government to require bullying material to be removed in circumstances where the social media does not have an effective complaints system. The commissioner has powers to issue notices to persons who post cyberbullying material targeted at an Australian child.

In summary, this suite of legislation, particularly the substantive bill, has resulted from an overwhelming indication from the Australian community that they wanted something done about protecting Australian children from cyberbullying. It is for that reason that I commend both bills to the Senate.

6:48 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill 2014 and the Enhancing Online Safety for Children (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2014. Child safety and child protection are issues that are of great interest and importance to me.

I have had extensive involvement in the issue of online safety for children, and I have worked with many schools to promote online safety programs and resources. I want to quickly pay tribute to the fantastic work that is done by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, which develops some great materials and online resources for children of all ages, parents, schools and others. These materials include various brochures, the Cybersmart website and the Cybersafety Help Button, to name a few.

My interest in online safety for children, and online safety generally, also stems from my service in this place as the chair of the Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety and the Senate Select Committee on Cyber-Safety. Labor recognises that some doubt has been expressed through consultations about the effectiveness of the bills currently before the Senate. However, we are willing to allow this regime to be tested, and we will support the bills. While it is positive to see any government taking initiative in this area, I am a little disappointed in some aspects of the Abbott government's approach. If the government is seeking the best outcome for the safety of children online then they would do well to work with the opposition on bipartisan solutions.

During my time as chair of the Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety and later as chair of the Senate Select Committee, I had a great working relationship with my counterparts from the other side, particularly the member for Mitchell, Mr Alex Hawke, who served as deputy chair of the joint committee. In fact, I had a pretty good working relationship with all members of both committees, and I believe we produced some excellent reports.

I am disappointed that we no longer have a cybersafety committee, as I think those committees were a useful forum for working together on bipartisan solutions to cybersafety issues. On the subject of online safety for children, shortly before my time as chair the joint committee produced an extensive report—I think it was about 400 pages—titled High-wire act: cyber-safety and the young, which both Senator Ludlam and Senator Ruston mentioned. That report looked comprehensively into the issue of online safety for young people, obviously including children, but anyone under the age of 18. Despite the rapid advance in online technologies, I think the report still has currency today. This was a unanimous report, and Labor, when in government, accepted all of its recommendations. There were 32 recommendations in the report and there was an overriding message that the problem of online safety for children requires a response in which government, industry, schools, children and their parents, and the broader community all work together. This is why Labor in government established two cybersafety advisory groups—the youth advisory group and the teachers and parents advisory group—both retained by this government, to its credit.

Labor also provided funding to the ACMA for its Cybersmart program, which provides extensive educational resources to children, parents and schools, and we established cooperative relationships with companies that run social networking sites such as Facebook, Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft to ensure that material which is offensive or breaches Australian law is taken down as soon as possible. The Cooperative Arrangement for Complaints Handling on Social Networking Sites protocol came directly from one of the recommendations of the High-wire act: cyber-safety and the young report. This particular initiative encouraged the major social media companies to take a look at their own practices for dealing with cyberbullying and other complaints on their platforms. Just recently, the CEO of Twitter, Mr Dick Costolo, wrote an email to his executive team about his embarrassment at not effectively tackling cyberbullying. In his email Mr Costolo said:

We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years. It's no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day.

I'm frankly ashamed of how poorly we've dealt with this issue during my tenure as CEO. It's absurd. There's no excuse for it. I take full responsibility for not being more aggressive on this front.

I should point out that Twitter did not sign up to the protocol. But, given their CEO's recent comments, maybe signing up to the protocol would be a great way to demonstrate that they are serious about tackling these issues.

Despite the fact that Twitter did not sign up, the protocol was a positive step in the previous Labor government's measures to promote cybersafety. All up, Labor committed $125.8 million to cybersafety initiatives. They were good initiatives, informed by a committee which had representation from across the political spectrum. To build on these initiatives, I think we would get better legislative outcomes by having a bipartisan approach. As such, personally, I would like the Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety or the Senate Select Committee on Cyber Safety re-established at some point in the near future.

Before I talk about the bills themselves, I would like to focus a bit on online bullying, otherwise known as cyberbullying, and why it is important that we have specific measures to combat it. A 2014 study estimated that 20 per cent of Australian children aged eight to 17 were victims of cyberbullying during one year, with 463,000 children estimated to have been affected. Interestingly, the most prevalent forums for cyberbullying are social media sites like Facebook rather than chat rooms or online forums. More and more children now own or access internet connected devices at an earlier age. In fact, there is a four-year-old in my immediate family who can outshine me working my iPad on a number of levels, which I find slightly embarrassing, but it is just that that is what he has been brought up with and what he knows. Some of us, as Senator Ruston alluded to, are the generation that just missed that spot, and so we find it a bit harder in some areas. But it is interesting to see a four-year-old—and even when he was three—asking me for my password so he could access my iPad because he wanted to watch the cartoons that he could watch on there. It was really interesting to see.

More than half access their first internet connected device before the age of 10, and 43 percent of 14- to 17-year-olds own a smartphone. The chief executive officer of the Alannah and Madeline Foundation, Dr Judith Slocombe, has said: 'There is no difference between someone who bullies online and one who bullies face-to-face. They are just different methods. They both can cause enormous harm.' In some respects, Dr Slocombe is right. Cyberbullying, after all, is often a continuation of face-to-face bullying by the same perpetrator. But I think there are aspects of online bullying that make it different to face-to-face bullying. First of all, children usually have relief from face-to-face bullying at home, whereas online bullying can occur 24 hours a day, seven days a week. While several children may witness an incident of schoolyard bullying, online bullying can potentially have an audience of thousands, often resulting in greater humiliation for the victim.

Cyberbullying expert Associate Professor Shaheen Shariff equates the online environment for children to the island in Golding's 1959 classic Lord of the Flies, saying that the lack of supervision and regulation allows the practice to escalate to life-threatening levels. Unlike face-to-face bullies, cyberbullies can also have the benefit of greater anonymity. It leads to the perception that cyberbullying is more difficult to detect and that the bullies are less likely to face the consequences. We know that all forms of bullying can have serious health consequences, leading to psychological effects like low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and, in the worst cases, self-harm or suicide. I am sure that everybody has heard of some of the cases of young people taking their own lives because they have been bullied online. The anonymous and 24/7 nature of cyberbullying can actually exacerbate the harm because it makes it more difficult for the victim to escape it. Children can usually escape face-to-face bullying at school, whereas from cyberbullying there is often no respite.

The bills currently before the Senate provide a legislative response to bullying in the digital age. While all states and territories have laws against bullying, it can be resource intensive for police to investigate and prosecute cases of online bullying. I will just briefly outline what the bills seek to achieve. The primary bill establishes a children's e-safety commissioner and sets out its functions and powers, which relate to a defined prohibition against 'cyber-bullying material targeted at an Australian child'. A child or their representative can complain to the commissioner that they are or have been the subject of cyberbullying material targeted at them. The commissioner may investigate such complaints. The bill sets out an expectation of the parliament that each social media service will comply with a set of basic online safety requirements. This includes minimum standards in a service provider's terms and conditions of use, a complaints scheme, and a dedicated contact person.

This bill creates two tiers of social media services. Tier 1 comprises social media services which have applied to the commissioner to be declared as such. Social media services within tier 1 may be requested by the commissioner to remove material that has been the subject of a complaint, such as cyberbullying material which has been targeted at a child. A tier 2 social media service may be issued a social media service notice by the commissioner which requires the removal of such material. The commissioner also will have the power to issue notices to end users who post cyberbullying material, which can include a requirement for them to remove that material. The remedy for non-compliance with such a notice is to seek an injunction from the Federal Circuit Court.

If a social media service fails to comply with the basic online safety requirements, a request to remove subject material or a social media service notice, then the commissioner may make a statement to that effect and publish it on its website. In relation to non-compliance with the social media service notice, the service may be liable to pay a penalty of 100 penalty unions which currently equates to $17,000. The commission has other functions including the promotion of children's online safety and coordinating the activities of other departments relating to the same.

Also introduced with this bill is the Enhancing Online Safety for Children (Consequential Amendments) Bill, which contains consequential and transitional provisions in the legislation. The financial impact of the bills is relatively minor. It is just under $40 million over the forward estimates. The bills were referred to the Senate's Environment and Communications Committee for inquiry and report. I will just reflect on some of the submissions to the bill and what they said in relation to its provisions.

All up there were 29 submissions. Throughout the submissions, there was strong support for both the proposed Children's e-Safety Commissioner and the take-down notice regime. Several submitters commented about the importance of having a focal point for co-ordinating government actions to protect children online, including the actions of state and territory governments. It is proposed in the bill that the e-Safety Commissioner be a statutory office within the Australian Communications and Media Authority, ACMA.

The Australian Medical Association submitted that, while they were comfortable with the arrangement to have the commissioner working under the auspices of the ACMA, it is important for the commissioner to also have access to child and adolescent health and development expertise to inform its activities.

The AMA also recommended that the e-Safety Commissioner work with the National Children's Commissioner, who has already done some work in relation to cybersafety thus avoiding duplication of effort. This was also supported by the submission from Families Australia, who went further and suggested that the commissioner's role be placed with the National Children's Commissioner or the Human Rights Commission, or that the Children's Commissioner's role be extended.

The National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, NAPCAN, expressed some concern about whether giving the commissioner responsibility for administering the ACMA's online content scheme would distract the commissioner from a dedicated focus on the online safety of children. The Association of Heads of Independent Schools Australia pointed out that schools are at the front line of dealing with bullying by children, especially cyberbullying, and proposed that there be a formal mechanism for the commissioner to consult with schools.

In relation to end-user notices, the Australian Psychological Society pointed out that developmental research supports an educational and restorative approach to cyberbullying rather than one that is punitive. This means the legal framework should aim to prevent rather than punish, and promote diversionary programs rather than fines for young offenders. As I mentioned briefly earlier in this contribution, there were some doubts expressed about the effectiveness of the proposed regime. The Australian Psychological Society questioned the evidence base for implementing the system and proposed rigorous evaluation of the process and impact.

We do need to recognise that the provisions of this bill, as with any bill that seeks to regulate the online environment, are only effective insofar as they relate to Australia's jurisdiction. As the New South Wales Advocate for Children and Young People pointed out in his submission, there are small offshore companies providing social media and other online communication services that are outside Australia's jurisdiction. This is a problem that confronts any national government when it tries to regulate behaviour in the online environment.

The other technical challenge is trying to remove material that has been shared more broadly, especially if it has reached a number of different platforms. The technical challenges of implementing this regime highlight that the problem of tackling cyberbullying requires more than just a regulatory solution. It requires a broader approach involving children, parents, teachers and the wider community. Once again, I refer back to the lessons in the High Wire Act report, that a coordinated approach is needed.

We need to provide children with cybersafety education and conflict resolution skills so they have the tools necessary to deal with online bullying and are encouraged to report it. These messages need to be promoted and reinforced through teachers and whole-of-school cybersafety education programs. As I said earlier, the ACMA provides some fantastic resources and materials to support children in learning how to keep themselves safe online, as well as resources and materials for parents and educators to help them keep children safe online and reinforce those safety messages. It is vital that the ACMA continues to be adequately resourced to deliver its suite of online safety resources, which are of great value to many children, parents and schools. After all, the Children's e-Safety Commissioner is a complement to the ACMA's other cybersafety programs, not a replacement.

We also need parents to learn how to talk to their children about cyberbullying, how they can cope with it, and the importance of their child talking to someone they trust about it when it happens. I recall during the inquiry that a lot of young people would tell us that they would not actually tell their parents they were being bullied because they thought their parents' response would be just to take away the iPhone, the iPad or the computer or whatever instrument was being used. It was quite interesting that a lot of parents thought that if you did that or somehow stopped them using it that the bullying would automatically stop, but it does not. What often happens is that even if the young person is not even able to physically the bullying at a precise moment, up to thousands of other people certainly can if the perpetrator has a wide network.

The Australian Council on Children and the Media, in their submission to the inquiry, highlighted the importance of involving parents in partnership with schools in educating their children about being safe online. The involvement of parents in all aspects of cybersafety education was also canvassed extensively in the High Wire Act report, particularly as it helps to reinforce the messages provided by schools and government.

Awareness of cybersafety also needs to be backed up with technologies that help schools to monitor internet use and children to report incidents or seek help. Parents also need to be aware of the resources that can help them to manage their children's internet usage at home. I do not believe these bills are a silver bullet. They are but one piece of a larger puzzle.

There is more work to be done on how the government can facilitate an effective whole-of-community approach to tackling cyberbullying. My message to the government is, 'Let's work together on the bigger picture, as we did through the Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety,' because in this area of policy the best solutions are going to be bipartisan solutions.

I commend the bill to the Senate.

7:07 pm

Photo of Penny WrightPenny Wright (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak to the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill 2014. In my roles as the Australian Greens spokesperson on mental health and on schools, I am acutely aware of the challenges facing young people, their parents and teachers when it comes to online safety. I am particularly aware of the mental health implications for young people who are trying to navigate the online world but who often find themselves in very problematic situations, with online bullying and harassment a reality for too many.

In Australia, we have a youth mental health crisis on our hands, with hundreds of young Australians losing hope and indeed even ending their own lives before their lives have really begun. Suicides have a ripple effect across homes, schools and whole communities. Particularly in country areas, the tragedy of a suicide reaches beyond those immediately affected to the broader community. Often those communities are small and tight-knit, and many people will be aware of what has occurred and have connections with the person who has taken their own life. This can then have serious ongoing implications for the mental health of many.

The statistics are very concerning. Our young people are now more likely to die by suicide than in a car accident. The 2014 Children's rights report by the National Children's Commissioner, Megan Mitchell, examines suicide and self-harm among young people. It is extremely concerning in parts, as it details the real extent of this issue and the tragic loss of life which results. The report also gives us the clear sense that the issues surrounding youth mental health and wellbeing are complex and not easily fixed—indeed, not easily understood, which is why a great deal more research and better data sets are needed in this whole area.

We know that young people are under a great deal of pressure these days. Growing up has probably always been tough, but these days we know that technology can make it even tougher. There is no doubt that the online world can be a difficult one for young people to navigate. Certainly, as the parent of three young adults, I have seen the journeys that my children have taken and those of their friends in terms of the many benefits of being switched on 24/7 to social media but also the downsides as well. Of course, the internet provides the possibility of wondrous and amazing sources of information, great convenience in all sorts of interactions and exceedingly good relationships. But, of course, it can also be a portal to traumatising images and brutal behaviour. I cannot help but think that we are doing a big experiment on our young people these days.

I still remember going into my daughter's bedroom about 11 o'clock one night when I heard her sobbing—she was about 15. I found that she had been contacted by phone by a friend who was having a difficult time. She had been woken up and was upset about it. It just increased my awareness that once upon a time you had one telephone attached to the wall and you had to take your turn in speaking on it. If you were a teenager and you wanted to speak on it for too long your parents would get annoyed and be impatient with you. There was a natural limit on how much you could be in contact with the outside world when you were at home. But, obviously, it seems these days that young people can be in contact with the pressures, as well as the joys, of the outside world at any time of the night or day.

A 2014 study from the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales estimated that 20 per cent of young Australians aged between eight and 17 have been victims of cyberbullying during one year, with 463,000 children estimated to have been affected. We know that increasing numbers of children and young people have access to the internet, particularly now on smartphones, and that in 2011 the Australian Communication and Media Authority identified social media as the primary form of digital communication between children over 13 years of age. If we take those statistics into account and then consider the sobering statistics we face in relation to the general mental health of young people in Australia, we realise what a complex picture we have to consider.

Last year, Mission Australia and the Black Dog Institute released a report which found that one in five young Australians are likely to be experiencing some form of mental ill health or mental illness. We know that half of all lifetime mental health disorders emerge by the age of 14, and three-quarters by the age of 24. So, clearly, adolescence is a crucial time in a person's life when it comes to their wellbeing and their mental health across their lifetime.

While the statistics paint a worrying picture, it is also important, of course, to acknowledge how many wonderful, dedicated people are working throughout Australia to improve the situation for young people in this country and the creative, innovative solutions they are generating, including a preponderance of solutions that actually use online programs to assist young people. This is a vehicle that, of course, many young people are very comfortable with and it would sometimes be their preference.

There are the big organisations, such as, the Butterfly Foundation, headspace, the Young and Well CRC, Orygen Youth Health and many others, who are all doing exceptional work to assist young people in Australia. But I would also like to mention the little ones. These are often actually generated by young people themselves using the online environment to help themselves and to help their peers. They might be websites, they might school based clubs in some cases or Facebook pages that have been started and which are driven by young people doing it for themselves, reaching out to their peers to offer support, understanding and assistance. Really, it is a bit like peer work. Often these will be young people who have experienced cyberbullying and who therefore are much more able to offer that consolation, assistance and support to their peers because that removes that sense of being judged for what a person is going through, which is one of the essences of the way peer work can be so effective.

An instance that I am aware of is the 'What about me' Facebook page, which is convened by two young people, Millicent Warne and Billy Russell. It started in South Australia. I met Billy when I was doing a school visit. He had started a club at his school to support students who were being bullied. He was an amazingly mature and compassionate young man of about 16 when I met him. It is interesting that he and Millicent Warne have started this 'What about me' Facebook page, which has been taken up with absolute enthusiasm by many, many young people and has had an amazing number of 'likes'. It basically specialises in allowing young people to talk about the difficulties that they are facing. It offers support and helps them to feel strong. It focuses on providing positive, affirming messages.

We also have clubs like the Gay Straight Alliance at Unley High School, which was part of the Safe Schools Coalition. It is a wonderful young organisation and has made a wonderful film about the importance of young people being able to be proud of who they are.

This brings me to the wider consideration of how we tackle the increasing difficulty of the way that cyberbullying and other forms of attack can undermine the mental health and wellbeing of young people in society. We need, as a society and a community, a broader conversation about how we can build resilience in young people—but basically in all of us. It is about allowing and enabling people to take control of their lives so that they are less susceptible to the judgements and the toxicity that might be thrown at them by other people. One of the core aspects of that is creating a society where we are inclusive and respectful and we celebrate the fact that people can be proud of who they are as unique individuals, whatever their characteristics are.

Amongst other things, this bill establishes a Children's e-Safety Commissioner and sets out the commissioner's functions and powers. It also establishes a complaints system for cyberbullying material targeted at an Australian child. One of the key functions of the Children's e-Safety Commissioner will be to administer the complaints system. The Australian Greens have some concerns about this bill. We are concerned to think that this might be considered some kind of panacea for what is a nuanced and complex problem which affects many, many young Australians. I know that my colleague Senator Ludlam has talked about our responses to the bill, but I guess in the end the question has to be predominantly: how effective and how practical will this bill be?

It is interesting to note this impressive tome here, which is the report of the Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety that was published in June 2011, High-wire act: cyber-safety and the young. The committee took a lot of submissions and considered a lot of evidence about the issue of cybersafety and how to keep young people safe. It ended up providing a significant list of recommendations—32 in all—which reflect the complexity of this issue. None of those was for a Children's e-Safety Commissioner, as it turns out.

One of the things I really want to say is that we need to consider the capacity of the mental health system to assist and support young people who are experiencing mental ill health as a result of bullying that they have experienced. We also need to consider how, as a community and a society, we can create conditions that foster resilience, respect and wellbeing. We have clear evidence that one of the most effective ways of dealing with cyberbullying is to educate parents and teachers about how to handle such situations and to educate children themselves from a young age. Again, it is about assisting young children to understand why other people may be doing the cyberbullying. In some cases, that can assist to take the sting out of what is occurring, build resilience and give children strategies for conflict resolution and being able to, if you like, deconstruct the situation that is going on. And, ultimately, giving children the ability to find and believe in their own value will make them more able to withstand some of the things that they are experiencing.

I want to have a bit of a critique of the effectiveness at the moment of our mental health system in supporting the young people who are being severely affected by cyberbullying. We know that, for a range of reasons, a significant proportion of young people are experiencing mental health challenges. I talked about that a bit earlier. But what does it look like to create a caring society where all young people can have access to the support and services they need to live long, full and healthy lives, to get through the tricky time of adolescence, to emerge as young adults and then to grow older, understanding how to be as safe and well as they can be?

Debate interrupted.