Tue, 15 Jun 2021 - 16:27
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Transcript: Online Safety Bill, Canberra ACT

MINISTER FLETCHER: Good afternoon, everyone. I’m very pleased to be here with Julie Inman Grant, the eSafety Commissioner, with Erin Molan, a prominent journalist who’s been such a significant advocate in relation to online safety, and with Sonya Ryan from the Carly Ryan Foundation, who’s been an advocate for online safety for many years after the tragic death of her daughter at the hands of somebody connected online.

And we’re here today on what is a very significant day, because the Online Safety Bill is before the Senate. And we hope the Online Safety Bill will be passed within coming days so that we have additional tools, additional powers for the eSafety Commissioner to help make the internet as safe a place as it can possibly be for Australians.

Online safety has been a focus for our Liberal-National government since we came to power in 2013. We established what was then the Children’s eSafety Commissioner, and that body was given statutory power to be able to issue a takedown notice for content that was found to be cyber bullying material directed at an Australian child. The responsibilities of the office were expanded to the eSafety Commissioner. We added powers to deal with the unauthorised sharing of intimate images. Now this is something that’s absolutely devastating for victims if unauthorised intimate images of you are shared online. Overwhelmingly it is women who are the victims of this, and so the eSafety Commissioner has specific powers in that area. And we also added powers later to deal with abhorrent violent material following the appalling livestreaming of the murders of over 50 people in the Christchurch moving attack.

So the eSafety Commissioner is a very important office within the Australian government dedicated to keeping Australians safe. We took to the 2019 election the promise that we would further strengthening the powers of the eSafety Commissioner and we are acting on that promise. In late 2019 we issued a detailed discussion paper. In late 2020 we issued an exposure draft. So we consulted carefully on the measures in this Online Safety Bill that has now passed through the House of Representatives and is now before the Senate. Among the measures within the bill are that the notice period that the platforms have to deal with the notice from the eSafety Commissioner dropped from 48 hours to 24 hours. And very importantly we’re introducing a new set of powers for the eSafety Commissioner to deal with the serious cyber abuse of Australian adults. If passed, that will be a world first and that will be so important.

So today is a very important day when it comes to keeping Australians safe online. Our government has been very focused on that. And each of the people who are here with me today will speak briefly about their perspective before we take some questions. So I’ll ask, first, Julie Inman Grant, our eSafety Commissioner.

JULIE INMAN GRANT: Thank you, Minister. We all know that technology always moves faster than policy. And these reforms after six years which are actually eons in the life of technology development and the threats that they pose is coming at a really important time. All of these reforms are based on the limitations that we found in terms of how we can help Australians. We’ve obviously seen online harms supercharged in the age of COVID. And even as the world opens up we are seeing a proliferation of online harms.

Now these aren’t records that you want to break, but just last week our cyber report team has conducted more investigations around child sexual abuse material than ever in the history of the 20-year online content screening.

We saw over COVID as fear, uncertainty and doubt converged with people being online. We saw volumetric attacks targeting mostly women and those with intersectional factors in ways that we’ve never seen before. So it’s really time that we had the powers and we set basic online safety expectations around what companies need to do to have the ability to operate in Australia. We need them to be transparent. We need them to be accountable. We also have to remember that these reforms not only give us significant civil powers, because not every victim wants to go to the police, wants to go to court. These give us significant powers to issue fines to both posting services but also to perpetrators.

And this is a very victim-focused bill. It can give us the tools to help more Australians be safer and have recourse and actually serve as a deterrent when we see this abuse happening online. We know that seven per cent of all reports that come into our office are from girls and women. The way that online harassment, gendered violence, really, manifests towards is very different than directed towards men. It’s sexualised, it’s violent and it’s meant to cause serious harm. So we’re pleased that we actually have some powers to deal with this kind of targeted harassment going forward. Thank you.

ERIN MOLAN: Thank you very much. So this is a very significant day, as the minister said. And I’m incredibly proud to stand up here with the e-commissioner and with everybody to, I guess, celebrate – and hopefully not prematurely – the work that has gone into this. And it’s been a lot of significant work over many, many years. And this bill, if passed – and I hope it gets passed; I spoke to Anthony Albanese yesterday and he was very confident that Labor would support this. I think the Greens as well hopefully, because this is so important, not just for Australians in the public eye – and yes, I’m one of those and, yes, I’ve been a victim of some absolutely vile abuse over the past decade or so working in television and radio in Sydney. But this is about keeping every single Australian safe online. You don’t have to have a profile to be a victim of this of stuff. And this kind of scuff can ruin lives. Make no mistake about it – abuse, harassment, intimidation, menacing behaviour online can ruin lives and it can end lives as well. So this is really, really crucial. 

As I said, I’m really proud to be here, and I think this is a day that every Australian should be incredibly proud of and that we should all try and support. This is also the first big step in creating deterrents for this kind of behaviour. Because without deterrents this will continue. This helps to take away the anonymity from these perpetrators and this puts pressure on social media companies and individuals, and by doing that we help to protect victims. So I thank the government for their work. I thank the advocates and I thank everybody else who has been a part of this. A lot of people have been really passionate about this. So thank you.

SONYA RYAN: Good afternoon, everyone. It’s been a long time since I lost my daughter Carly to an online predator and a lot has happened in the years since. And one of those greatest things that have been established has been the Office of the eSafety Commissioner. I feel really delighted to see this bill progressing forward. I think that it is desperately needed. We have, you know, apps and online social media services evolving constantly. So, therefore, we need to enhance legislation. I believe that it’s really important to give the eSafety Commissioner these added powers.

We have protections for offline harms. We have a number of different resources put in place in our offline world. I do believe that we also need to make sure that there are protections for the online world just as harm is happening there as well. So I absolutely support this bill. I think that it is absolutely necessary. And the sooner it passes the better for all Australians. We’re seeing increases in harms against children, increases in harms against adults across the online space, and so, again, I think that this is well overdue. And, you know, it is looking at the review in three years and potentially the government can enhance it even further then. But right now I think that it’s a wonderful thing. I really hope that it does go through today. I really do. Thank you.

MINISTER FLETCHER: Thank you very much, Julie and Erin and Sonya. Are there any questions for me or any of the others?

JOURNALIST: I have a question for the commissioner. Under these new laws can you give us an example of the type of behaviour that you would now have the power to intervene and stop happening any further?

JULIE INMAN GRANT: Right, well, some of the new powers involve serious cyber abuse directed at an adult. Over the past three years we’ve had about 3,600 reports through an informal scheme to help adults. And we’ve only been able to help about 71 that have reached that threshold. And we’ve relied on the goodwill of platforms to do that. This would give us the power to obviously assess – it’s at a very high threshold and it needs to be because we need to balance freedom of expression and nature that we’re really targeting it most harmful content. So we’ll have to make out that serious harm has been done and the intent to cause serious harm. But this would allow if you’ve got an Indigenous football player who is targeted and threatens to kill their children or them, this gives us the power to either fine the perpetrator or fine the host up to half a million dollars if they don’t take it down. This will help us – as I said, most of the abuse we see targeting women. It’s sexualised, it’s violent, it threatens rape, murder of children. This gives us powers to be able to tackle that kind of abhorrent content that is meant to cause distress.

JOURNALIST: What kind of guarantees do we have that material that someone might regard as abhorrent but others might regard as being in the public interest, that that sort of material won’t be the subject of takedown notices and then secondly sexually explicit content which has a place somewhere on the internet, that that won’t be subject to takedown orders?

JULIE INMAN GRANT: Right. Well, let me tackle the serious cyber abuse first. Obviously this is not covering political speech, it’s not covering newsworthy content. There will be a test for that. What we’re really looking at is that line where serious harm and intent to cause serious harm is passed. And I think the government’s down a really good job in making sure they draw that line. It is at a threshold that is on par with the current criminal provisions, 474.17, using a service provider to menace, harass or cause offence. Very, very high standard. In fact, I’m sort of concerned that we’re going to probably turn more people away than we may be able to help in the first instance. But that’s exactly what the review is for.

It’s worth noting that any decision we make, of course, it can be appealed and it can go to the Ombudsman, the AAT. It can go to the Federal Court, and we’re also developing an internal review process which can allow people like an FOI report to question whether or not that decision has been made and we’ll have different people within the safety office review whether that decision was made properly. All of this has to stand up in a court of law.

JOURNALIST: As you mentioned, technology moves faster than policy. How do you stop these laws from (*inaudible)?

JULIE INMAN GRANT: Right, well, I think the built-in review makes a lot of sense. I mean, the good thing is we’re in constant communication with the government and when things happen or when new significant threats arise, like the Christchurch tragedy where nobody really anticipated the horror that could be broadcast simultaneously over livestream, we were able to put some laws into place to deal with those specific circumstances

What I think is great about this bill is that it expands the remit from just social media, which was the challenge in 2014-2015, but now we see harms taking place on dating sites, on online gaming platforms, on IOT devices we see the vast majority of technology facilitated abuse and cyber stalking happening on private messaging and on IOT devices. So this gives us the power to cover all of these technologies.

 JOURNALIST: Commissioner, can I return to Lisa’s question if I could, aside from material that would obviously be illegal, like child abuse material or something like that, would you see any situation where you, for instance, would request the takedown of adult material? Like, there are creators on only fans, for instance, who are concerned that this might affect them. Would you see a situation where you might take down that kind of content if it was legal?

JULIE INMAN GRANT: I actually have those powers now. And the rules here and the laws are here to tackle online harms that are done to any Australians, particularly children. Now what happens between on adult content and is behind the restricted access system or is on a platform, that’s not my business. We will always have a finite amount of investigative resources. My absolute priority is on child sexual abuse material and terrorist content, and I have to prioritise, and that’s one of my priorities.

JOURNALIST: Just on that point, finite resources, are you expecting with these new powers that you’re going to a flood of new complaints to your office, and how well resourced are you to be able to deal with that?

JULIE INMAN GRANT: Well, we did receive some COVID surge funding over the COVID period and that has actually seen a 75 per cent of the cases that we’ve investigated around child sexual abuse material is what we call own-motion investigations. So we’ve built a capacity. We’re getting ready to hire a whole new adult cyber abuse team. And we’ve also co-located all of our investigative teams together to prepare for surges. So members of our image-based abuse team and (*inaudible) team can pitch in if we have an unexpected level of reports.

We were able to pivot fairly well during COVID, for instance, over the Easter long weekend we saw 600 per cent increase in image-based abuse due to some sexual extortion scams that were running. We’ve always been able to manage. This is again why we keep in close contact with especially the minister to make sure that we’re resourced properly.

MINISTER FLETCHER: Can I just add one point there if I may. So this bill is part of a structured process of making sure that the eSafety Commissioner has the powers necessary to do the job the government wants it do to help make the internet as safe as possible a place for Australians. But as Julie has mentioned, what we’ve also done is provided significant additional funding, including in the most recent budget. So there’s a combination of significant extra resources precisely for things like employing additional investigators.

JOURNALIST: Sorry, Commissioner, can I ask you one more: in your opening statement you spoke about I think a surge or an explosion in sort of online harms through the pandemic. Would some of those groups be groups involved in the QAnon sort of movement? I know that’s not maybe a massive issue here in Australia right at the moment, but is that one of the, I guess, movements that your office is concerned with?

MINISTER FLETCHER: Not specifically. We have a number of different schemes that tackle different (*inaudible) types. So we don’t see a lot of QAnon, child sexual abuse material and other forms of illegal content. Through our (*inaudible) violent material content, we have targeted some very abhorrent sites that are based overseas that, you know, post raw material and, you know, the Christchurch video and manifesto. I don’t feel that there is any QAnon ties there but so the answer, I guess, would be no.

JOURNALIST: A quick question for Sonya. It’s been over a decade now since you lost yourself daughter. You’ve been campaigning in this sort of area for quite some time. Carly’s Law passed parliament a couple of years back, now this will happen. What are the gaps that are still existing in your opinion and what are you going to be advocating, in what areas, in future?

SONYA RYAN: We’re looking at sentencing reform. But, you know, today’s bill is really – is encouraging for me. I think, as I said earlier, we need to be mirroring the protections that we have offline and putting those protections online. And we absolutely need to make sure that we’re constantly looking at legislation to make sure that it’s up to date with current technologies.

I want to keep on pushing forward through my daughter’s legacy to make sure that we are reducing harms in the online space, that we are a place for young people to be able to turn to, because Carly was a real girl with a real life. Young people should feel absolutely confident to come forward and disclose to our organisation, the Carly Ryan Foundation, and, therefore, we can then give them the confidence to then step forward to the Office the eSafety Commissioner for additional support. And I think it’s really important to have an office like the Office of the eSafety Commissioner because it gives the Australian community a one-stop shop that they can go to for support, for help, for takedowns.

And for takedowns to get down – to be taken down within 24 hours is also really important for that reduced time to happen, because there can be a lot of emotional distress and a lot of mental happen very quickly when there’s distressing content on line of a young person. So, you know, I think it’s really important to have these additional powers put in place. I think essentially they are meant to reduce harm for Australian society, for the Australian community. That is the purpose of this bill. That’s what it was, you know, drafted for. And I am really looking forward to seeing the eSafety Commission growing and for the office to continue to help prevent crimes against young people in this space.

JOURNALIST: A quick question for Erin, as well, if I may: you were subjected to some pretty horrific treatment online because of your platform, because of your status, but you’ve also then had a platform to speak out about it, too. How difficult is it, do you think, for victims to come forward and speak out about the horrible abuse that they are receiving, and do you think that is a barrier to them making a complaint to someone like the commissioner?

ERIN MOLAN: Absolutely. I think initially once it started to happen to me, which was when I joined the Thursday Night Footy Show – it was kind of seven or eight years. Prior to that I was a bit of an unknown and kind of under the radar. I would find it actually quite embarrassing. You know, I think the fact that other people are reading such horrific things about me, and what I first started to notice was the commentary online wasn’t about my performance or my knowledge or what I was delivering; it was abusive, it was threatening, it was very sexualised, it was about my appearance. It was really vile and vulgar. And when I used to get asked about it by different media organisations I would be quite embarrassed.

Now, though, I feel like the narrative has changed and I think the understanding is that actually, you’re not the issue. If you’re abused and targeted and attacked online it’s not because you are a failure or you are weak; it’s because these perpetrators are vile bullies. And once I started to understand that it actually became much easier for me to talk about. And it sounds awful, but once I started to see that actually it was happening to almost everybody online it made it somewhat easier to deal with because it didn’t feel as personal. So it was certainly something I struggled talking about, and I would almost try to just pass off when I was asked about it during the early days when it was brought up for me in different situations. But now I absolutely embrace it because I think if you can talk about it openly you can save lives and you can get other people to talk about it.

When you look at Sonya and her daughter and what’s she is trying to do in trying to get young people to be comfortable in approaching adults and not feel like they’re going to get in trouble and feel like that it is a safe space and they are victims. And the same as adults. You know, it’s not something to be ashamed of. You are a victim in this. And now, if this bill passes, we’re going to have extra powers to punish perpetrators and protect victims, and that’s been the thing that I’ve been fighting for all along.

JOURNALIST: Can I ask Erin and Sonya, what difference would it have made to your lives if these laws had existed previously?

ERIN MOLAN: I’ll go first, because I’ll be quite quick. Look, I think it’s certainly accountability and the deterrent aspect for me. I think once these laws come into place and once there’s a more public narrative around the fact that they exist, it will deter people from doing it. Once people understand that you can actually go to jail for five years, you know, that we can find you, that you are no longer anonymous on these sites, that you can’t send a threat to rape my daughter and think that you will go to work the next day in your 9 to 5 job and that you will not be held accountable whatsoever because you’re anonymous. Once people start to understand that you no longer can hide, the rates of this will decrease. It will start to stop happening, which is exactly what we want. So for me I think it would just be the fact that people wouldn’t feel so comfortable doing it, and that’s what I hope, that you’ll have a much more severe penalty.

SONYA RYAN: I mean, as I said earlier, I think, you know, just as we have protections for people that try and harm those offline we need to absolutely make sure we have the same protections for the harms that are happening online. Now what happened to my daughter is the worst possible thing that could, I think, ever happen. And had the Office of the eSafety Commission existed, you know, when I very first attended the first cyber safety summit here in Canberra in 2010 in its infancy, of really changing the online safety landscape here in Australia, I think my story may have been very different. Who knows, maybe my beautiful girl might still be here.

You know, but, her legacy will potentially help prevent what happened to her happening to other innocent seem in future. There are so many online harms happening. It’s multi-layered. There’s harms happening against children. There’s harms happening against adults, and I think the anonymous nature of the online space creates – gives people a sense of empowerment and they feel they can go and harm others in this space and get away with it, as Erin mentioned. But I think, you know, we need to be held accountable for our actions online just as we are offline. And people need to know that if you are going to go and harm somebody that there will be a consequence for that action.

Often what we see is those that go out online to intentionally harm others generally have something going on for themselves. They’re projecting their own suffering or their own experience outwardly on to other people. And so, you know, there’s a multi-layered response. And this new Online Safety Bill is one of those responses with multiple solutions within it. And so, you know, I’m really looking forward to seeing the difference that this will make.

JOURNALIST: Minister, maybe just on Four Corners, you have (*inaudible) in the past or asked the board in the past to explain how an episode was in the public interest. Was last night’s episode in the public interest?

MINISTER FLETCHER: Look, I didn’t see it. But the allegation that in any way there’s a connection between the Prime Minister and QAnon is just laughable, ridiculous. In fact, I’m not going to dignify it with a more detailed response than that.

JOURNALIST: You’ve previously written to chair of the board asking for a please explain on previous episodes. Will you be doing the same this time?

MINISTER FLETCHER: Again, this story was ridiculous. The suggestion there’s any link between the Prime Minister and QAnon is ridiculous. And the government won’t be dignifying it with a further response than that. Thanks everyone. Thank you.