Fri, 09 Apr 2021 - 10:35
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Op-ed: Greens dodge bill for women's safety

We hear a lot of talk from the Australian Greens on women's issues. But when it comes to placing women's safety ahead of scoring political points, it's a different story.

Take the case of the Morrison Government's Online Safety Bill, which is before the Senate.

When Australian women use the internet, they have the same right to be safe as in every other aspect of their lives. But the sad fact is that women face particular dangers online, as Australian eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant regularly points out.

For example, overwhelmingly it is women who are victims of unauthorised sharing of intimate images online. Since 2018, the eSafety Commissioner has had the power to direct social media platforms to remove such images.

Soon the parliament will vote on the Online Safety Bill. It draws on the experience of the eSafety Commissioner across the past few years, with practical and targeted measures to make the internet a safer place, not least for Australian women.

For example, the bill will reduce to 24 hours the period within which social media platforms must act to take down intimate images following a direction from the eSafety Commissioner.

The bill also introduces a world-first scheme, giving the eSafety Commissioner the power to direct social media platforms to take down serious cyber abuse directed at an Australian adult.

This builds on the existing powers of the eSafety Commissioner to direct that cyber-bullying material directed at an Australian child is taken down, although it sets a higher bar, recognising that adults are more resilient than children, and it is important to balance freedom of speech considerations.

The case for these new powers is strong, and women in particular are likely to benefit from the assistance of the eSafety Commissioner on these issues.

Each year thousands of women experience vicious online abuse. Some cases are very well known, such as AFLW player Tayla Harris and sports journalist Erin Molan. But many ordinary Australians approach the eSafety Commissioner every year seeking assistance.

You would think that measures to keep women safer online would be above politics.

To its credit, Labor has met with the government to discuss this bill on several occasions. The government has agreed to sensible amendments proposed in that process and we will continue to work in good faith with Labor.

The Australian Greens, too, claim to champion women's safety. Their policy platform rightly states: “Women have the right to be free from violence and harassment and should have the freedom to choose what to do with their bodies.”

Yet, bizarrely, the Greens say they will not support the Online Safety Bill. They have refused even to receive a briefing on the bill and how it works.

Looking at public statements by Greens politicians on this bill, it is hard to discern a coherent argument for why they oppose these practical measures to improve the safety of women, and all Australians, online.

In a recent speech in parliament, Greens leader Adam Bandt acknowledged a key rationale for the new law: “because of the speed with which digital images can be transmitted ... the non-consensual sharing of intimate images is something that has caused significant grief to so many people, including so many women”.

But then he brought in a furphy about censorship: “We must tread incredibly carefully, because if we don't, we could find ourselves, as the parliament, saying to informed, consenting adults, ‘We are now going to allow government to determine what you can read and do and participate in online.' ”

Most of his stated reasons for opposing this law are simply factually incorrect.

He told parliament it would limit free speech and “people in the (tech) industry will start censoring themselves for fear of being subject to one of these orders”.

In fact the eSafety Commissioner can direct the removal of material only when it reaches a very high bar: it must be menacing, harassing or offensive; targeted at a particular individual; and be intended to cause them harm.

Bandt says there is “almost no way of challenging the decisions” of the eSafety Commissioner. This is not true. You can appeal a decision to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and beyond that to the Federal Court.

He says the Greens “oppose the government rushing this thing through when so many people have raised so many concerns about it”. In fact there is wide support for the bill.

The main groups that oppose it are sex workers and the pornography industry, which claim, wrongly, that this bill imposes a new classification scheme for adult content distributed online.

Bandt echoes their concerns and worries that “when sex workers are forced offline, they are often pushed into unsafe working environments, which creates direct harm”.

In fact, the rules governing content that can be lawfully distributed online have been in place since 2001. Unless you are producing content that would be refused classification under existing law - for example because it involves rape, murder, bestiality or child sex crimes - this bill is not about you.

The Australian Greens seem to have swallowed the claims of the big tech companies, which always resist any new rules that would make them do more work to keep Australians safe online. “Let's not rush this,” they always say, and the Greens are parroting the same line.

If the Australian Greens were serious about women's safety, they would support the Online Safety Bill.

This op-ed appeared in The Australian on 8 April 2021.