The new Online Safety Bill has been a ‘rush job’

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

Civil and digital rights groups say the sweeping new Online Safety Bill is a “rush job”, having been introduced to federal parliament just 10 days after government received nearly 400 submissions on the proposed laws.

The government unveiled the draft Online Safety Bill in December last year, with consultation running across the summer break up until 14 February.

The bill extends the eSafety Commissioner’s takedown scheme for Australian adults, allowing them to issue removal notices for content deemed to be rated as R18+ or higher, and to order the sites or apps be blocked if they do not comply.

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There are significant concerns about the new powers, particularly their impact on sex workers and activists, the significant power and discretion handed to the commissioner, and on their potential to further undermine encryption.

Despite the scale and scope of the legislation, the process behind its introduction to parliament and consultations has been a “rush job”, Digital Rights Watch program director Lucie Krahulcova said.

Submissions on the draft legislation closed on 14 February, with 370 submissions made to government on the bill.

Despite the volume of submissions, the government introduced the legislation to Parliament just 10 days later on 24 February. It is still yet to release any of the submissions it received as part of that round of consultation.

It was subsequently referred to a Senate committee for inquiry, with submissions opening on 25 February and closing on 2 March. This left just three working days for stakeholders to make a further submission on the final legislation.

“The fact that the government is willing to plough on with the bill a mere 10 days after 370 submissions were filed should raise alarm bells. That is not what a democratic consultation process looks like,” Ms Krahulcova told InnovationAus.

“This does not indicate a meaningful consultation process, nor that community concerns are being taken seriously. It means we need to speak up even more,” Digital Rights Watch tweeted.

Former federal Greens Senator Scott Ludlam also raised concerns with the timeframe around the bill in a submission to the senate inquiry, saying it appears the government has already made up its mind.

“As expected, the draft bill provoked hundreds of submissions flagging grave concerns. For some reason the government has ignored this feedback and instead proposes to proceed with an unacceptably compressed timetable, with a largely unamended bill, in the absence of any formal response to red flags many civil society organisations have made,” Mr Ludlam said in the submission.

“This response indicates that the government had already made up its mind, calling into question the purpose of the exposure draft. It therefore falls to the senate, through this committee, to prevent the foreseeable risks posed by this bill as drafted.”

In its submission, tech giant Google also pointed out the speedy process of introducing the bill to Parliament.

“This bill was introduced into the House of Representatives a mere 10 days after the public consultation period on the Exposure Draft of the bill closed,” Google’s Samantha Yorke said in the submission.

The Online Safety Bill will introduce a “world-first cyber abuse take-down scheme” for Australians, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said in Parliament last month.

“This new scheme provides a pathway for those experiencing the most seriously harmful online abuse to have this material removed from the internet,” Mr Fletcher said.

“The Australian government believes the digital industry must step up and do more to keep their users safe. That belief underpins the provisions of the bill.

“We all enjoy standards of behaviour and civility in the town square that keeps us safe, and there are appropriate mechanisms and sanctions for those who break these rules,” he said.

“The Australian government believes that the digital town squares should also be a safe place, and that there should be consequences for those who use the internet to cause others harm. This bill contains a comprehensive set of measures designed in accordance with this belief.”

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