A New Internet Law Has People Worried And The Australian Government Isn’t Listening [Updated]

A New Internet Law Has People Worried And The Australian Government Isn’t Listening [Updated]
Twitter: Paul Fletcher

In case you were worried the passing of the news media bargaining code would mean that politicians would stop paying attention to the internet, fear not! The Australian Government is already trying to pass new laws about the internet — despite unanswered concerns about the impact.

Last February 24, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher introduced the Online Safety Act to Parliament, a long-mooted law that expands the powers of Australia’s eSafety Commissioner.

For those unfamiliar, it’s a government-appointed position that grew out of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner into a broader role to deal with cyberbullying, image-based abuse and illegal or harmful online content

The Online Safety Act considerably enhances the eSafety Commissioner’s powers. The reforms include:

  • the ability to order to removal of online abuse
  • removing access to websites or apps from search engines and app stories for certain types of material.
  • rapid blocking of websites that are showing abhorrent violent or terrorist material.
  • increases the maximum penalty for use of a ‘carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence’ from three to five years in jail.

While there’s nothing to suggest that that the eSafety Commissioner has used her existing powers irresponsibly, this expansion of powers given to a single person in government calls for scrutiny.

As such, the federal government called for feedback on its proposed law in December.

In response, the Australian sex industry raised serious concerns that the law could essentially run them off the internet.

Advocacy group Digital Rights Watch also have questioned the Acts’ expansion of the abhorrent violent material blocking scheme, it’s broad online safety expectations, and ability obtain information about users using encrypted services.

How has the government responded to these concerns? By pushing forward with the bill despite concerns.

Fletcher has put forward the bill, without releasing or responding to the submissions sought from the public.

Fletcher’s office has been contacted for comment.

“Both of the online safety bills have been developed following election commitments and substantial public and stakeholder consultation, including stakeholder workshops and an analysis of over 370 submissions received in response to an exposure draft of the Online Safety Bill that I released in December 2020,” Fletcher said in the second reading of the Bill on February 24.

A day later, the Bill was referred to a Senate committee for further consultation for a single week, with a report due a week later — a speedy turnaround.

While the eSafety Commissioner’s office has attempted to allay concerns by saying the laws in their current forms won’t be used to censor Australian sex workers, the fact is that the letter of the law allows it — and a future eSafety Commissioner could decide to use their powers in that way, if they were that way inclined.

The Government’s decision to push forward and not even address concerns from people whose livelihoods depends on the internet doesn’t seem to align with their mission to protect Australians online.

Submissions to the inquiry into the bill can be made here.

Update March 1: This story has been updated to include details of the Senate committee inquiry into the Bill.