Why the rush? Online Safety Bill still not passed

Denham Sadler
Senior Reporter

The Online Safety Bill will not be passed by Parliament until May at the earliest, despite the rushed process behind the federal government’s controversial legislation.

The Online Safety Bill, which extends the eSafety Commissioner’s takedown scheme to Australian adults and allows for the issuing or removal notices for content deemed to be R18+ or higher and the ordering for sites or apps to be blocked if they fail to comply, was introduced to the Senate last week.

There are significant concerns around the legislation, including the discretion it hands the eSafety Commissioner, its potential impact on sex workers and activists and the potential to further undermine encryption.

data online safety bill
The eyes have it? The Online Safety Bill is still before parliament

The government revealed a number of amendments to the legislation following negotiations with the Opposition, centred around improved transparency and reviews of the sweeping new powers.

But the bill wasn’t brought on for debate and was not passed before Parliament rose for the sitting week. With Senate Estimates this week and the Easter break, Parliament does not return for a full sitting week until the end of May, presenting the next opportunity for the Online Safety Bill to be passed into law.

Shadow assistant minister for cybersecurity Tim Watts said the Opposition would continue to work with the government on the proposed amendments during this delay.

“Despite significant delays and much media spruiking the government still hasn’t been able to deliver legislation that adequately addresses serious stakeholder concerns,” Mr Watts told InnovationAus.

“It’s been two and a half years since the Briggs Review recommended a new Online Safety Act. Instead of getting on and delivering it, the government has been spruiking the Bill in the media as if it were already law for two years.”

The government could have used this extra time to consult on the legislation and address the issues around it, Electronic Frontiers Australia board member Justin Warren said.

“It is disturbing that the government plans to hand a large amount of largely unchecked power to a single person when it hasn’t even figured out how to safely use that power,” Mr Warren told InnovationAus.

“The current Commissioner told the Senate that ‘this is the sausage being made right now’. ‘Move fast and break things’ is what got us in this mess in the first place,” Mr Warren said.

“These are not new issues, so it is entirely reasonable for us to expect the government to have figured out these details before asking for more power. It’s just another example of the government not doing its homework and then rushing to turn in something, anything, at the last moment. Australians deserve better.”

The short process from revealing draft legislation to introducing it into Parliament has led to a number of issues, Mr Warren said.

“EFA is very disappointed that the government has ignored the detailed and constructive feedback on the bill from a broad and diverse cross-section of Australian society. When this many people, who frequently disagree with each other, are all telling you you’ve got it wrong, you should pay attention,” he said.

“The hasty drafting of the legislation has removed a variety of oversight mechanisms and safeguards that already exist, while extending Australia’s outdated censorship regime to cover private, person-to-person messages.”

The two-month delay comes after a rushed process where the government only provided three working days for stakeholders to make submissions to a senate committee inquiry into the bill.

A draft version of the Online Safety Bill was unveiled in December last year, with a consultation process running over the Summer break to 14 February.

Despite receiving nearly 400 submissions, the government introduced the bill to the lower house just 10 days later.

The submissions also weren’t made public until after the legislation was introduced to Parliament.

The bill was quickly referred to a Senate committee, with further submissions due just three working days later.

The committee soon gave the legislation the green light, and it was passed by the House of Representatives last week with bipartisan support.

Labor voted in favour of the bill but raised a number of concerns and flagged further amendments in the upper house.

The government announced it would be amending its own legislation in the Senate, requiring the reporting on the use of the powers by the eSafety Commissioner, and for the formulation of a reviews scheme within the office.

Tim Watts said the timeframe around the legislation “undermined confidence” in it.

“It is disappointing that the government has proved incapable of conducting a process that satisfies stakeholders in terms of process and substance,” Mr Watts said in Parliament.

The Greens will be voting against the legislation because it is “poorly drafted and could lead to widespread, unintended consequences”.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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