The controversial Online Safety Bill has passed the Senate and will become law after a late-night session which saw the major parties unite to wave through a number of amendments.
Late on Tuesday night the Online Safety Bill, which hands significant new powers to the eSafety Commissioner to order the removal of content and blocking of sites that don’t comply, was approved by the Senate with bipartisan support.
Labor and the Coalition teamed up to pass a number of amendments, including to require an annual report on the Commissioner’s use of the new powers and a new internal review scheme, and to reject others.
The bill now needs to be returned to the lower house, likely this week, as a formality, before it comes into effect in six months.
The bill was rejected by the Greens, which labelled it “utterly undercooked”, and a number of Labor Senators rose to express concerns around the major powers being handed to a single individual, the impact on encryption and on groups such as sex workers, despite ultimately supporting it.
A number of amendments were successfully moved, including that “serious harm to a person’s mental health” does not include “mere ordinary emotional reactions”, to require the Commissioner to report annually on the use of the new powers, the establishment of an advisory committee and the development of an internal review scheme.
Some of the amendments that were voted down by the Senate included one that carved out sex education and harm reduction content from the scheme, another that required digital platforms to not unnecessarily remove content and for a compulsory independent review of the act.
The Online Safety Bill extends the online takedown scheme to Australian adults, allowing the eSafety Commissioner to issue removal notices for content they deem to constitute online abuse, image-based abuse and harmful online content, with a 24 hour time limit.
It also requires the quick blocking of websites hosting “abhorrent violent and terrorist content”, increases the maximum jail sentence for using a digital platform to menace and harass to five years, and allows the Commissioner to demand that content deemed to be rated R18+ and higher be removed from digital platforms.
Communications minister Paul Fletcher said the scheme “gives new protections for Australian adults subjected to seriously harmful cyber abuse”.
In an opinion piece for InnovationAus, Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg said it is about protecting people from abuse online.
“What I want to see is a scheme that is ultimately going to protect people from cyberbullying and image abuse in a way which balances out the privacy concerns which are understandable and legitimately,” Senator Bragg said.
But there are numerous critiques of the new scheme, particularly around its impact on the adult industry, on freedom of speech, and that it may lead to the censorship of online content.
There are also concerns around the “rushed” nature of the bill’s passage through Parliament.
After unveiling draft legislation in December, the government opened submissions on it during the Summer break, and received over 400. But just 10 days later it was introduced to Parliament, and quickly referred to a Senate committee for inquiry.
Stakeholders were then given only three working days to make a submission to the committee, which quickly gave the legislation the green light.
Labor said that it would ultimately be supporting the bill but that it is “not happy about the way it has been delivered”, echoing many concerns of the wider community.
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