Enhancing Online Safety for Children

I also rise to speak in support of the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill 2014. This bill fulfils our government's election commitment to improve online safety for children. We all know that technological change is occurring very rapidly in our society; I have just come down from a hearing of the Senate economics committee on digital currency, where we are all learning about things like blockchains and cryptography and hashes and all these things.

It is quite unbelievable how our society is changing. We had a witness there today who quite eloquently summed up that yes, while these new forms of media and new technologies can be used by criminals or by people who want to do the wrong thing, they are just a means and not the end. As he said: from his observations criminals also wear shoes, but we are unlikely to want to ban shoes just because they are used by criminals.

Likewise, digital currencies have been used by criminal and other organisations which are not necessarily the most pure in our society, but would we want to ban them all just because of that? Likewise, the internet can at times be used for activities which we would prefer not to occur in our society, but we cannot stop those things from developing. We have to, as a parliament and as a government, move with the times, so to speak, and make sure our laws and regulations are kept up-to-date with developments in technology and the use of that technology by bad people.

The internet, and social media in particular, has been a tremendous benefit to our society and our economy. We can quickly communicate with all the members of our family and with our friends now. It is a great benefit to me—I am always on the road and I would not be able to keep in touch with my family as easily as I do if we did not have this technology. I remember a while back there was actually a TV advertising campaign to encourage you to phone your mum and phone your friends and all that sort of stuff. That would seem a little bit out of place these days because you do not just do it by phone. You can use Facebook, Twitter and all these things to keep in touch with your loved ones.

But sometimes the ability to communicate so easily, and sometimes almost anonymously, can create threats as well. In those instances the internet, and social media in particular, can make bullying behaviours more dangerous to children who are particularly vulnerable to becoming the victims of it. Previous speakers have spoken about the rising problem of cyberbullying, and the data that I have seen shows that there are hundreds and thousands of children across Australia who have been subject to this bullying. In 2014, the University of New South Wales Social Policy Research Centre concluded that the best estimate of cyberbullying over a 12-month period is 20 per cent of Australians aged eight to 17. That is one in five. I have four kids of my own, so there is a good chance that one of them will be subject to it. My eldest is just in that bracket—actually, two of them are in that bracket, aged eight and nine—so it is very concerning as a parent that that could happen.

Of course, bullying can occur at school as well; but it is just all that more available now and potentially more group-like in its attributes when it occurs online—there are a lot more people involved. Cyberbullying is most prevalent in children aged between 10 and 15, and prevalence does decrease as people get older and perhaps a bit more mature. These figures mean that the estimated number of children and young people who were victims of cyberbullying in 2013 alone was 463,000, and around 365,000 would be within that 10-to-15 age group. Social media is creating a very substantial new workload for school principals and teachers, as well as parents, and the same University of New South Wales research paper found that 80 per cent of secondary schools reported at least one instance of cyberbullying in 2013, as did just under 60 per cent of primary schools.

As I said earlier, it was not that long ago that the home was a sanctuary for children—you could come home and remove yourself. Going to a personal story, I remember in that grade 9—was it grade 9?—we had a huge fight with the grade 8 kids; I think we were the older ones—

Senator McKenzie:  "Glory days!"

Glory days, Senator McKenzie. I think we were the older group. I was on the bad end of some of those blues. I do remember coming home and—

Senator Ludlam:  "Name names!"

I am not going to abuse my parliamentary privilege and name people; we have all matured! You would get home and, when you were at home and with your parents, and you were not at school, it was somewhere you could take a bit of a break and a breather and a pause from that. You would be counting the hours before you would have to go back to school and you would not be looking forward to it too much, but at least it was not a 24/7 experience.

I do worry for children who grow up in this environment. It was not that long ago that I was at school, but things have changed. They cannot necessarily get away from it. A lot of kids these days in high school would have their own phones, and every time someone sends you a message or a tweet on Twitter or Wickr or any of these other platforms, you get a notification. You could potentially be reached out to at any time in your life and that is of great concern.

I think it is important to remember that it is not just the widespread and mainstream social media platforms that exist. The bane of my existence at the moment as a parent is a thing called Minecraft. For those who may not have—

Senator McKenzie:  "They grow out of it."

Hopefully, Senator McKenzie, they will grow out of it. They want me to play Minecraft. I have not played it yet, so I do not really understand it; apparently, it is Lego for the internet. I am sort of okay with the platform; it is not overly violent—but it does obsess them. And it is a form of social media in a way because they can join public servers. Kids as young as five or six go onto YouTube and find out how to join these servers. They get online and they can communicate with people all around the world by playing a simple computer game. And of course you do not know who these people are that they are communicating with, and that is a bit concerning as a parent. It is hard for us as parents to keep up with all these new programs coming in that we do not use and that we do not really know too much about.

I think one of the lessons we have learnt over the years is that government regulation sometimes struggles to do a good job when these things develop and come online, but it is important that we try. This bill here today does attempt to bring our regulations up to speed. The measures in this bill will bring a better and more rapid response to these dangers. In the fast-moving world of the internet and social media, we need to be faster and more nimble in addressing this issue.

The bill will establish the Office of the Children's e-Safety Commissioner and in doing so will create an effective complaints system for harmful cyberbullying. The commissioner will be given two sets of powers it can use in responding to a complaint. One of these powers will be to issue a notice to a large social media service, requiring it to remove the material. The other power will be to issue a notice to the person who posted the material, requiring the person to remove the material and to refrain from reposting the material or apologise for the posting of that material.

These are quite substantial powers that we are putting in place here. It does give this commissioner a fair amount of power to potentially regulate what people are saying and what companies are allowing people to post in an online environment. I think, however, given the particular vulnerability here of young children and people that are vulnerable in our society, that these rules should be in place. I hope that the social media services that we are targeting in this bill will be compliant and cooperative with what we are putting in place, because I think this is a law which could be implemented without a particularly large hammer, if you like, on behalf of the government. It is something that could have widespread support within the community and the corporate sector—and social media companies as well, because social media companies themselves rely very heavily on making sure that they maintain a large network of users and, therefore, maintain a large level of support within the community for their service. I think there have been examples in the past where they have cooperated and removed material which has been either damaging to particular individuals or damaging to the wider community fabric.

There are some enforcement aspects to the bill as well. We are not just relying on the good grace of these companies. With that first power regarding large social media services, the commissioner can issue a tier 1 notice to begin with. If a social media service repeatedly fails to respond to a notice from the commissioner, it can be moved to a tier 2 notice, meaning that the social media service will have a legal duty to remove cyberbullying material and face fines of up to $17,000 a day if they do not act in response to the commissioner. As I said, hopefully those powers, and particularly those penalties, will not need to be relied upon in many cases, but if we want to walk softly, it is important that we carry a big stick.

Apart from these direct powers that the commissioner has, they will have some broader functions under this bill—including: the promoting of online safety for children; coordinating relevant activities of Commonwealth departments, authorities and agencies in relation to online safety for children; and accrediting and evaluating online safety educational programs. The relevance of this accreditation is that the government is allocating $7.5 million for schools to purchase online safety programs, and this funding can be spent on any program accredited by the Children's e-Safety Commissioner. I applaud the government for making an investment of this kind, because, as I said, as a parent myself I know it can be hard to keep up with these new forms of technology—what they can do and what they can be used for. The research shows that schools similarly struggle to keep up. This new investment will help them have the tools and resources to respond appropriately to developments that are occurring right now and to developments that we cannot envisage right now, that may occur in the future.

The commissioner will also take on responsibility for administering the current online-content scheme under schedules 5 and 7 of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992. But it is important to understand that this is simply the commissioner taking responsibility for administration of this existing and longstanding scheme. The bill actually does not make any changes to that online scheme and is separate from the complaints system that I referred to earlier.

This legislation will state the parliament's expectation that all social media service should comply with certain basic online safety requirements: that they have terms of use that prohibit the posting of cyberbullying material; that they have a complaints system in place under which end-users of the service can seek to have material that breaches the services terms of use removed; and that there is a contact person where the commissioner can refer complaints that users consider have not been adequately dealt with.

I think we would all agree that the best way for these issues to be dealt with is by the particular media service themselves rather than having to be escalated to a regulator, in this case the commissioner, for more onerous enforcement.

That may not always be the case once this bill is in place. But if we can have a good self-regulation process involved, that would be a more superior outcome.

I mentioned the $17,000 penalties before. The commissioner will also have other powers available to most regulators including the ability to take enforcement undertakings from providers. In the case of either a requirement under an end-user notice or a requirement under a social media service notice, the commissioner will be able to go to court to obtain an injunction to ensure compliance with the notice. In each case, enforcement is governed by the standard provisions that are contained in the Regulatory Powers (Standard Provisions) Act.

I want to finish by noting that this bill has broad support within the community as well. I started my contribution by saying that this is something the government took to the last election and is a commitment we made then. I am glad to see we are seeing it to fruition here in law. But it is also something that various people and leaders in our community have been calling for for some time including Matthew Keeley of the National Children's and Youth Law Centre. The President of the Australian Medical Association, Brian Owler has also been supportive of these changes as has Phillip Heath, who is the national chair of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools.

This will is an appropriate and proportionate change to our laws to protect the vulnerable in our society. We should always be careful where we seek to impose some form of restriction on what people post and what people say online but where it involves vulnerable people in our community, we should seek to put the appropriate protections in place to protect them. I think it is important that we do so. This bill is focused on child safety and children in our community, not with the communication that may occur between adults. If you take a look at most politicians' Facebook pages, there is probably a fair amount of quasi bullying activity that occurs there but that goes with the job. We should have thick skins to deal with that and we are adult and mature. If people want to act in an immature way, we can ignore that. But it is a bit hard for us to ask our children to do the same when they are in the formative years of their lives and where that kind of behaviour can have a long-standing and deleterious impact on their development and on the formation of a well rounded and mature personality. So I applaud the government for taking action to protect children in this instance and I am glad to have spoken in support of this bill.

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