Wed, 14 Oct 2020 - 16:11
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Op Ed: The pressure's on for the digital giants to keep everyone safe

Keeping Australians safe online is a priority for the Morrison Government. That is why in this year's Budget we have announced a further $39.4 million in funding for the eSafety Commissioner.

Why do we need an eSafety Commissioner? And why do we need to increase her funding?

The internet has brought profound benefits - entirely new ways of learning, interacting and working.

Never before has human ingenuity seemed so unlimited by space and time.

But with these new possibilities have come new risks. Alongside the convenience and innovation, there is a toxicity that lurks on the internet.

Some of it is obvious to everyone, such as the abuse and bullying that are a poisonous presence on social media platforms. At the same time, in the darker corners of the web there is a prevalence of child sexual abuse material that WePROTECT, a global alliance of nations dedicated to fighting it, has recently described as a “tsunami”.

Like other parents, I want to see children protected against the risks that the internet can bring, while receiving the educational and informational benefits it offers.

As Minister for Cyber Safety, I am determined to provide practical tools and protections for all Australians who use the internet.

Australia is ahead of the curve on these issues. We established the eSafety Commissioner in 2015 as the world's first dedicated online safety watchdog. The Commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, has extensive legal powers. She can require online platforms to remove cyberbullying material directed at a child, as well as intimate images or videos that have been circulated without permission.

Meanwhile, her team of specialist investigators work with our international partners to have child sexual abuse material removed from the internet so that it can no longer haunt its innocent victims through their lives.

But the evidence suggests the internet is getting increasingly toxic with new forms of threat emerging regularly.

Over the last year or two we have seen numerous instances of terrible online abuse being directed against prominent figures like football players and coaches, and journalists.

But all Australians, not just prominent ones, are at risk - and sadly the risk is greater for women than men.

Plan International published a survey this week which found that 65 per cent of Australian girls and young women have experienced some form of online harassment on a social media platform.

With many Australians working or studying from home during COVID-19 - and hence being online much of the time - the volume of reports to eSafety is up sharply. In response, the Government provided extra funding of $10 million in June this year.

The $39.4 million of additional funding in the Budget is even more important.

This will help eSafety manage its existing workload helping keep Australians safe online; it will also give it extra resources to counter emerging forms of online harm.

As promised at the 2019 election, our Government will soon introduce a new Online Safety Act into Parliament.

Once this becomes law, the eSafety Commissioner will have much stronger powers to help Australians who are the victims of “Adult Cyber Abuse”. If you are subject to abuse on a social media site, you complain and nothing happens, you will be able to go to the eSafety Commissioner - and she will have the legal power to require the abusive content to be taken down.

Adults are more resilient than children, so the bar will be higher for these rules than for the existing rules about cyberbullying directed at a child. Specifically, these new rules will apply to material that is menacing, harassing or offensive, and has the intended effect of causing serious distress or harm.

We believe no Australian should have to suffer vicious, harmful abuse online, with no recourse. The new Act will also set out very clearly our expectations of the giant digital companies when it comes to keeping Australians, children and adults, safe online.

Australia is a global leader when it comes to government taking action to help make the internet safe for users. As this major new funding commitment shows, we intend to stay a leader.

This article first appeared in The West Australian on 12 October 2020