Review to examine new penalties, cost recovery for online safety

A review of Australia’s online safety laws will consider greater enforcement powers for the eSafety Commissioner and new penalties for social media giants to address the growing number of internet harms, such as deepfakes and pile-on attacks.

The review will also explore whether a cost recovery model could be used to fund regulatory activities, much like what has been proposed for the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.

Led by former consumer watchdog deputy chair Delia Rickard, the review gets underway more than a year before the federal government is required under the Online Safety Act, which came into effect in January 2022.

Communications minister Michelle Rowland announced the review in November last year, making good on a commitment in the government’s response to the House of Representatives Select Committee on Social Media and Online Safety in March.

Credit: Twin Design /

According to the terms of reference, released on Tuesday, the “broad ranging” review will consider whether existing elements of the Online Safety Act, including the existing cyber-bully and online content schemes, remain appropriate.

The operation and effectiveness of the Basic Online Safety Expectations – which forms the basis of the six industry codes that are now rolling out and the two forthcoming industry standards – will similarly be considered.

But the review will also look to address harms not “not explicitly captured under the existing statutory schemes”, including internet pile-on attacks, online abuse of public figures, and technology-facilitated abuse and gender-based violence.

It will consider whether digital platforms have a ‘duty of care’ towards users – a obligation that already exists in the United Kingdom, requiring digital platforms to take reasonable steps to keep users safe.

The impact of generative AI, immersive technologies and decentralised platforms on harms will also be examined, just months after search engines agreed to new obligations to prevent AI functionality on their platforms from being used to generate synthetic child abuse material.

New investigative and enforcement powers for the eSafety Commissioner will be considered, including whether social media giants should be subject to penalties for a “broader range of circumstances”.

Announcing the review on Tuesday, Ms Rowland said that having laws that are “robust and can respond to new and emerging harms” is of critical importance for the Albanese government.

“Our laws can never be a set-and-forget, particularly as issues like online hate and deepfakes pose serious risks to Australian users. “That’s why the Albanese government has brought forward our review of the Online Safety Act to ensure the eSafety Commissioner has the right power to help keep Australians safe.”

Ms Rickard has been asked to report back to the government at the end of October. She will be supported by staff from the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications, and the Arts.

The government will release an issue paper for consultation in the coming months, with industry groups, law enforcement agencies, international regulatory bodies and state and territory governments among those invited to provide feedback.

Doxxing – the practice of releasing a person’s personal information online without their permission – was also been flagged as an issue of concern by Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus on Tuesday, but is not specifically addressed in the terms of reference for the Online Safety Act review.

The proposed reforms come after hundreds of Jewish Australians who were part of a private WhatsApp group had their personal details, including names and photos, published online by pro-Palestinian activists.

“The Prime Minister has asked me to bring forward, as part of that set of reforms to the Privacy Act, some new provisions to deal with this practice of doxxing, with the malicious use of people’s personal information without their consent,” Mr Dreyfus said.

“We’ve already got some provisions through the eSafety Commissioner that enable online platforms to be required to take down. That’s one of the measures that we’re certainly going to be looking at in relation to this practice of doxxing.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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