Senate debates

Wednesday, 14 June 2017


Enhancing Online Safety for Children Amendment Bill 2017; Second Reading

7:12 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in support of the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Amendment Bill 2017. The bill amends the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Act 2015 to broaden the functions and the title of the statutory office, the Office of the Children's eSafety Commissioner. Labor understands that online safety is important for all Australians—adults as well as children—and broadly supports the bill. Labor supported the government in the establishment in the new Office of the Children's eSafety Commissioner in 2015 based on the importance Labor places on children's safety online and in recognition of the prevalence of bullying and social media in the lives of Australian children. Labor is committed to doing all it can to support online safety for children and adults.

I am sure many of us representing our local communities are aware of the importance of ensuring Australians have clear and consistent advice when it comes to e-safety. It is therefore of concern that there is confusion in the community about where to go for information and assistance on e-safety. Of course, the government itself is responsible for this confusion, and government members have admitted as much themselves. To quote the second reading speech by the member for Bradfield:

The bill amendments address feedback received by the government that adult members of the public are not aware that they can go to the Children's eSafety Commissioner for assistance with concerns around illegal or offensive online content, the sharing of intimate images without consent—commonly referred to as 'revenge porn'—or for general advice about how to manage technology risks and online safety.

In response to a question on notice during Senate estimates recently, the office stated:

The OCeSC has noted anecdotal feedback that the current name may deter some segments of the public coming to the Office for assistance on a broad range of online safety issues currently within the office's remit.

Let us be clear: it was an idea of this government to transfer responsibility for online safety away from the Australian Communications and Media Authority to the newly created Office of the Children's eSafety Commissioner. At the time the government took the decision to create the office, the ACMA had been responsible for a range of initiatives in the online safety space for years. Under the Cybersmart brand, the ACMA offered a suite of tailored cybersafety initiatives, digital media literacy initiatives and education programs to meet the needs of Australian citizens, not just children. Despite this success and despite there being no confusion over the remit of the ACMA with respect to adults or children, the view of the government was that the ACMA was not high profile enough. It was confirmed by the Minister for Communications under scrutiny at Senate estimates recently. Earlier this year, Senator Urquhart put to the communications minister that there had not been any confusion about the ACMA's remit with respect to adults or children, and the minister agreed. Senator Fifield said:

You are right. Some of the responsibilities that the commissioner has now were previously held by ACMA. No disrespect to ACMA, but I do not think the acronym 'ACMA' is necessarily top of mind for the community.

… … …

… it was not a high-profile office in the way that we wanted the Children's eSafety Commissioner to be and that we now want the eSafety Commissioner to be.

Now the government is changing the name of the commissioner, and taxpayer money will foot the bill for any necessary rebranding.

The government has touted this bill as expanding the role of the eSafety Commissioner to address online safety issues affecting adults, including to combat non-consensual sharing of intimate images, commonly referred to as revenge porn. But the bill does not actually extend the existing cyberbullying scheme to adults or confer any new powers to the commissioner to deal with revenge porn. Rather, it empowers the office to provide information-based initiatives for adults. As the Bills Digest notes:

While the Commissioner will not have the ability to receive complaints from adults about cyber-bullying material, the Government seeks to improve and promote online safety for all Australians through education initiatives.

And, it notes further:

This Bill does not introduce offences for non-consensual sharing of images but is a recognition of the Government’s commitment to assist all Australians on online safety, through education and research.

So, while the bill contains amendments to broaden the general functions of the eSafety Commissioner, it does not confer any additional formal powers on the commissioner. Meanwhile, serious questions about civil and criminal offences for dealing with non-consensual sharing of intimate images remain entirely unaddressed in this bill.

Labor welcomes the expansion of eSafety Commissioner's role to adults as well as children. It is sensible that the eSafety Commissioner's website contains resources on so-called revenge porn and that the new complaints mechanism be handled by the commissioner's office. Accordingly, the change in the title for the position is not really controversial. However, rebadging the office and creating a complaints mechanism is not enough.

Labor is concerned that the bill does nothing to criminalise the non-consensual sharing of private sexual material. Labor first introduced a bill to criminalise this behaviour in October 2015, then reintroduced this bill in the current parliament in October 2016. In June 2017, in the House of Representatives, Labor moved a second reading amendment calling on the government to criminalise revenge porn. Unfortunately, Labor's motion was negatived.

You do not need to be paying much attention to what is going on in the online space to appreciate that women, particularly those with a significant public profile, are currently the targets of enormous abuse and threats and intimidation online. What happens if you are a woman goes into a police station to complain about online threats, abuse and intimidation can actually be a bit of a lottery. There is a lot of research that shows that the experience of women in these situations varies enormously, depending on the station they make the complaint at or depending on the officer who was on watch.

In this respect, changing to an eSafety commissioner with a general remit is valuable because, clearly, we have an important culture-change task in front of us. We really need to get the message through to law enforcement and to policymakers that this kind of online behaviour can have significant impacts—impacts that can be just as significant as if these threats, abuse—

Debate interrupted.