Govt to amend Online Safety Bill with Labor support

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The government will move to amend the Online Safety Bill to provide more transparency and reviews after the controversial legislation was passed by the lower house with support from the Opposition.

The Online Safety Bill hands new powers to the eSafety Commissioner, extending the online content takedown scheme to Australian adults, and allows for the issuing of removal notices for content deemed to be rated R18+ or higher, and to order the site or app to be blocked if it refuses.

A set of basic safety expectations will also be outlined for Big Tech as part of the legislation.

The legislation was given the green light by a Senate committee on Friday, and was passed by the House of Representatives on Tuesday afternoon.

Online safety: Labor will support governments controversial bill, albeit with amendments

Labor supported the legislation in the lower house but is expecting a number of government amendments in the Senate to address the myriad concerns around the bill.

Shadow cybersecurity spokesman Tim Watts acknowledged concerns about the bill, including that it vests significant power and discretion with the eSafety Commissioner, its lack of transparency about how this power would be used, its potential impact on the sex industry and for it to be used to remove content that is in the public interest.

The government has been unable to address these stakeholder concerns, Mr Watts said

“The safety of Australians online is of paramount importance and Labor will work with the government to iron out concerns with these bills in time for debate in the senate,” Mr Watts said in Parliament.

“But in the meantime, Labor will not oppose these bills and we support passage through this place on the understanding that government amendments are forthcoming,” he said.

“Labor considers that the government must consider further amendments to clarify the bill in terms of its scope and to strengthen due process, appeals, oversight and transparency requirements given the important free speech and digital rights considerations it engages.”

The government amendments are expected to include increased reporting from the eSafety Commissioner on how the new powers are utilised, and a new internal review mechanism regarding these decisions.

On Tuesday morning the Greens announced that they would be voting against the legislation, calling for it to be withdrawn and redrafted as it is “poorly drafted and could lead to widespread, unintended consequences”.

“This bill would make the eSafety Commissioner the sole arbiter of internet content in Australia. It creates extraordinary powers for any one person to hold, let alone an unelected bureaucrat,” Greens senator and digital rights spokesperson Nick McKim said.

“It also fails to provide for timely reviews or appeals of decisions made by the eSafety Commissioner. We are concerned that people opposed to sex work, pornography and sexual health for LGBTIQ+ people could abuse the complaints process to seek to have lawful online content removed. Public interest news that involves violent imagery, such as footage of police violence, could also be taken down.”

While the Online Safety Bill has been discussed by the government for several years, it recently only gave stakeholders four working days to make submissions to the senate inquiry into the final piece of legislation, which was introduced to Parliament just a week after nearly 400 submissions were received on it.

This short timeframe has “undermined confidence” in the process, Mr Watts said.

“It is disappointing that the government has proved incapable of conducting a process that satisfies stakeholders in terms of process and substance,” he said.

There is also a “worrying lack of conceptual and operational clarity” around how the new powers will work, with Mr Watts pointing to eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant recently saying that the “sausage” is still being made.

“Finding the balance between free speech and protections against certain kinds of speech is a complex endeavour and we are concerned that this bill represents a significant increase in the eSafety Commissioner’s discretion to remove material without commensurate checks and balances,” Mr Watts said.

“It doesn’t take much imagination to foresee a situation where, in the hands of an overzealous eSafety Commissioner, legitimate speech could be silenced – whether of racial or religious minorities expressing outrage at racist speech, or of women expressing outrage at sexual violence in the workplace.”

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