The Online Safety Bill will pass Parliament after Labor offered its support for the controversial legislation despite being “not happy” about the way it has been delivered, and the Greens labelling it “utterly undercooked”.
The legislation was briefly debated in the Senate this week and will likely pass the upper house next week, with the support of Labor after the Opposition negotiated a numer of amendments with the government.
The Online Safety Bill extends the online content takedown scheme to Australian adults, allowing for the issuing of removal notices for content deemed to be rated as R18+ and higher, and to order the sites and apps to be blocked if they don’t comply.
Communications minister Paul Fletcher has said the bill “gives new protections for Australian adults subjected to seriously harmful cyber abuse” and “widens” the powers of the eSafety Commissioner.
The draft legislation was unveiled in December last year, with a consultation process following which many dubbed “rushed”. Submissions on the draft legislation were open during the Summer break, with more than 400 received.
Despite this, the legislation was introduced to the power house just 10 days later, where it was quickly referred to a senate committee for inquiry. Stakeholders were only given three working days to make a submission to this inquiry, with the legislation eventually given the green light.
There are significant concerns around the impact of the new powers on the adult industry, the investment of huge powers in a single individual in the eSafety Commissioner and the potential for it to further undermine encryption.
Despite these concerns, the Online Safety Bill was broadly supported in the Senate by Coalition and Labor Senators on Wednesday afternoon.
The Greens moved an amendment to have the bill withdrawn, and said they would eventually vote against the legislation.
The government will move an amendment to its own legislation with the support of Labor, introducing increased reporting requirements for the eSafety Commissioner on how the new powers are utilised, and a new internal review mechanism for these decisions.
Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg spoke in support of the Online Safety Bill, linking it to the news media bargaining code passed by Parliament earlier this year.
“What it really does is bring to bear a simple, single framework for online safety. I think setting out the basic online safety expectations and arming the eSafety Commissioner with the power to effectively ensure that people are protected will be broadly welcomed,” Senator Bragg said.
“What we don’t want to see is people being bullied and harassed online. We’re balancing civil liberties against the desire to protect people, and these are judgements that should be exercised by a minister and they should be disallowable, and that is the intention.”
A number of Labor Senators raised concerns about the legislation and the process behind its legislation, but the Opposition will eventually vote in support of it.
Labor Senator Louise Pratt said that the rushed process behind the legislation had “significantly undermined confidence” in it, and that the Opposition shared many of the concerns about its substance too.
“There’s an important balance to be found here around free speech and protections against certain types of speech. We’re concerned this bill represents a significant increase in the eSafety Commissioner’s discretion to remove material without commensurate checks and balances,” Senator Pratt said.
The Senator also said that the new powers could be used to “stifle” debate and free speech if placed in the wrong hands, and that the government’s amendments did not go far enough.
Labor Senator Nita Green summed up the party’s position on the bill, saying they would be supporting it but weren’t happy about that.
“While Labor will be supporting this bill we’re certainly not happy with how it is being delivered,” Senator Green said. “There’s a lot we don’t know about how this bill will be implemented.”
Greens Senators called on the government to completely redraft the bill in order to take into account concerns around the use of the National Classification Code, the potential for the powers to be used against lawful online content creators, the inadequate rights for review and inadequate transparency.
The Greens will also move amendments requiring an independent review of the Act in two years time, and that reasonable steps are taken to ensure the material being taken down is not removed unnecessarily, and for the impact on freedom of expression to be minimised.
Greens Senator Nick McKim raised concerns that the legislation will lead to an increase in the use of automation and AI by big tech companies to remove potentially offending content.
“The use of AI and algorithms in similar circumstances in places like the US has been extremely controversial to say the least, and we are concerned that the use of those technologies could lead to disproportionate outcomes like blanket bans, even if that is not the intent of the Commissioner,” Senator McKim said.
“This chamber should have taken the time to make sure we get it right and we avoid to the greatest extent possible any unintended consequences flowing from this legislation. The Australian Greens are disappointed that this chamber has not been given that opportunity.”
Fellow Greens Senator Jordan Steele-John also slammed the handling of the bill, saying it is “totally and utterly undercooked” and that it had been “rammed through in the shortest possible time”.
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