Wed, 24 Feb 2021 - 15:09
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A New Online Safety Bill

If you are walking down the street and suddenly find yourself on the receiving end of a torrent of vicious abuse, you expect to be able to do something about it.


You can go to the police and make a complaint, and your abuser could well face charges or at the very least receive a warning.


Of course the fact that there are rules, and they are enforced, means facing such attacks on the street is very unusual.


Today, though, vicious abuse is dished out frequently on the internet -- yet it can be near impossible to get quick, practical help if you are the victim of such abuse.


That has to change, which is why I have introduced a new Online Safety Bill into the Australian Parliament. 


It gives new protections for Australian adults subjected to seriously harmful cyber abuse.


This builds on the success of our existing rules against the cyberbullying of children -- although the adult cyber abuse scheme will have a significantly higher threshold, given that adults are more resilient than children -- and to properly balance freedom of speech considerations.


The Bill widens the powers of our world-leading online safety regulator, the eSafety Commissioner to protect children: for example by extending the existing cyberbullying rules from social media platforms to other internet services used by children, such as chat functions in games.


Critically, this new law will hold the internet companies to account for the safety of their products and services.  The Morrison Government expects to see safety designed into internet services from the outset, rather than being an afterthought.


Under the new law, if the eSafety Commissioner issues a takedown notice – in relation to content such as serious cyber abuse of an adult, cyberbullying of a child or image-based abuse -- the platforms will need to act within 24 hours, down from the 48 hours previously allowed.


We saw last week just how quickly Facebook can remove content when it wants to.  We expect internet companies to move with the same speed when it is needed to keep Australians safe.


Speed is important. Since establishing eSafety in 2015, we’ve learned that what victims of cyberbullying or image-based abuse (sometimes wrongly called “revenge porn”) often want most of all is for the material that targets them to be taken down, and for the humiliation to end.


The new law does not cover political speech. It applies only to content which specifically seeks to harm or threaten a particular individual, or content which is so abhorrent that it would already be heavily restricted or prohibited under Australia’s long established classification laws.


Nor will this new law give eSafety new censorship powers as some have claimed.  Since 2000, the law has specified certain kinds of content, such as child sexual exploitation material, which cannot be shown online, and which can be the subject of takedown notices. 


In this area the eSafety Commissioner’s focus has been on fighting the appalling scourge of online child sexual exploitation material, along with abhorrent violent material.  That will remain her focus.


For too long, the internet has been treated like the Wild West: a lawless and hostile environment where perpetrators can hide behind the cloak of anonymity and get away with appalling behaviour with impunity.


Online bullies and abusers need to know that their conduct will have serious consequences.


A key feature of the Bill will be to set out what we are calling the basic online safety expectations.  This is the Australian Government, on behalf of our community, being very clear with the internet companies about what we expect.


This will include requiring these companies to report regularly on how they are tracking and responding to dangerous and illegal content on their platform.


The digital platforms generally have terms of use, which say what users can and cannot post on the platform.  All too often, however, they fail to enforce these terms.


Under this new law the social media platforms will have to be clear about how and when they enforce their terms of use. 


We all know how central the internet is to modern life.


But we also know that, too often, the internet is used to attack or abuse or harm other people. 


The Morrison Government wants Australians to engage online confidently -- to work, communicate and be entertained, without fear of being viciously trolled or exposed to harmful content.


It’s a simple principle: the rules and protections we enjoy offline should also apply when we are online.