Online Safety ‘sausage’ is still getting made

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The Online Safety Bill “sausage” is still being made, according to the eSafety Commissioner, with the detail about how sweeping new content and site blocking powers will be implemented still uncertain despite a rush to pass the legislation.

The Online Safety Bill is currently the subject of a whirlwind senate inquiry after it was introduced to Parliament earlier this year.

After giving only three working days for submissions to be made, the committee is expected to hand down its final report on Friday, just a week after it held its one and only public hearing.

Julie Inman-Grant
Julie Inman-Grant: Australian eSafety Commissioner

This was after the committee asked for one extra day to deliver its final report, originally due on Thursday.

At the hearing, eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant addressed the numerous concerns about the proposed new powers and attempted to justify them.

The bill extends the eSafety Commissioner’s content takedown scheme to Australian adults, allowing the office to issue removal notices for content deemed to be rated as R18+ or higher, and then orders that the site or app be blocked if it does not comply.

The bill also gives the commissioner the power to order internet service providers to block domain names, URLs and IP addresses, and for the government to set “basic online safety expectations” for tech companies.

“Our goal is to make the internet a safer, more civil place for Australians to enjoy and we believe this bill is an important next step in achieving this ambitious and worthy goal,” Ms Inman Grant told the hearing.

“We’re privileged to be leading the globe as the world’s online safety regulator, and we welcome the opportunity to provide even greater levels of online protection to our citizens.”

The legislation has led to significant concerns centred on censorship and the potential blocking of industries such as sex work, along with concerns around the centralisation of significant power with the eSafety Commissioner.

Despite the legislation currently being in Parliament, and likely to pass within weeks, Ms Inman Grant said her office and the government were still working through how the powers would be implemented and used, with much of this to be outlined in subsequent regulatory guidance.

Labor senators raised concerns that they are required to vote on the legislation before knowing how it is to operate and deal with issues such as frivolous complaints, and how complaints will be triaged.

“These are all things that we are thinking about, we are actively planning for. We’re thinking about the staffing profiles we need. We’re thinking through what’s in, what’s out, what would our standard operating procedures look like and what is the staffing profile that we need to have,” Ms Inman Grant said.

“We’re basically looking at scenarios and other experiences that we’ve had. We’re also setting up a regulatory action committee so that we have checks and balances within our organisation, so when decisions are made we have legal people who have speciality and technical expertise as well as the investigators, particularly where there are grey or edge cases.

“So, this is the sausage being made right now, if you will.”

Ms Inman Grant said the new powers would not make her office a “quasi-law enforcement agency”.

“Where platforms don’t enforce rules in removing abusive accounts, we will need to seek from them basic subscriber information for the purposes of issuing fines or remedial notices. This does not make us a quasi-judicial agency or law enforcement agency,” she said.

“Our powers are purely civil, but this does give us the tools for both deterrence and enforcement where the big tech agencies have continued to fail to halt the abuse.”

In a submission to the inquiry, the Australian Lawyers Alliance said the bill should be scrapped entirely, saying it “invests excessive discretionary power in the eSafety Commissioner”.

Digital Rights Watch also said that too much power is being handed to the Commissioner.

“There seems to be a lot of political willingness to trust the eSafety Commissioner to act in good faith and stick to the intention of the legislation rather than explicitly define and limit the powers in the bill,” the organisation said.

“This is a naive trust in the cult of personality and risks that under any administration these powers will be misinterpreted and used to bully and marginalise individuals and movements.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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