Senate committee green light for Online Safety Act

The government’s Online Safety Bill has been given the green light by a Senate committee, paving the way for its debate in Parliament this week.

In the final report, the Opposition did however signal that it would move to amend the legislation in Parliament this week, while the Greens called for it to be redrafted entirely.

The Environment and Communications Legislation Committee tabled its report into the Online Safety Bill late on Friday afternoon.

Data sharing
Online Safety Bill: Senate report tabled in Parliament

The legislation hands new powers to the eSafety Commissioner, extending the takedown scheme to Australian adults, allowing for the issuing of removal notices for content deemed to be rated as R18+ and higher, and order the sites and apps to be blocked if they don’t comply.

While the committee received a number of submissions raising significant concerns with the impact of the new powers on the adult industry, the investment of huge powers with a single individual in the eSafety Commissioner, and the potential for the law to further undermine encryption, it recommended the bill be passed as is.

The committee’s only other recommendation was for the bill’s explanatory memorandum to be amended to clarify that the requirement for the basic online safety expectations code for tech companies to be in place within six months is “for best endeavours” with the eSafety Commissioner to have further discretion to work with industry to determine a timeframe.

In the report, the committee rejected the transparency and accountability concerns, and those worried about unintended consequences.

“The committee notes that there are extensive existing mechanisms for public and parliamentary scrutiny, as well as provision for statutory independent review of the options of the Online Safety Act, and administrative and judicial review of individual decisions made by the Commissioner,” the report said.

“Despite this, some committee members continue to share the particular concerns expressly identified by some submitters and witnesses regarding transparency and reporting in the exercise of the Commissioner’s powers.

“The committee notes that the Commissioner’s view that the new scheme is intended to focus on online harm, which the committee considers is an appropriate approach and which would not capture the significant majority of adult content online.”

In additional comments to the report, participating Labor Senators Nita Green and Catryna Bilyk criticised the rushed process behind the government’s consultation around the legislation.

“The short timeframe at the end of this drawn-out process has undermined confidence in the government’s exposure draft consultation process, with a number of stakeholders concerned that submissions have not been considered properly,” the Labor senators said.

The Opposition called on the government to make further amendments to the legislation to clarify its scope and “strengthen due process, appeals, oversight and transparency requirements, given the important free speech and digital rights considerations it engages”.

“We are concerned that this bill represents a significant increase in the eSafety Commissioner’s discretion to remove material without commensurate requirements for due process, appeals or transparency over and above Senate estimates, annual reporting and AAT appeals,” the Labor senators said.

In additional comments, participating Greens senators slammed the bill, saying it creates “extraordinary power for a single unelected bureaucracy – with little to no oversight – to wield”, and that the rushed process has meant it hasn’t been considered by the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills or the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights.

The new powers could also be “weaponised by people with moral or political agendas”, the Greens said.

The Greens called for the legislation to be withdrawn and redrafted to address these concerns, including the potential for the powers to be used against lawful online content, an inadequate right of appeal, inadequate transparency and accountability, the potential for the powers to be used to undermine encryption, and their detrimental impact on sex workers.

The Greens also called for a constitutionally or legislatively enshrined Charter of Rights, including privacy and digital rights matching the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation.

The Online Safety Bill is now expected to be debated in Parliament this week.

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