I rise to make a contribution on the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill 2014. As has been outlined by the senators, it is a package of measures which looks to implement one of the government’s election commitments, which is to enhance online safety for children.
Before I go into some of the details of the bill, I think there are a few context-setting things that need to be said around this. As Senator Xenophon, my colleague from South Australia, has just highlighted, the issue of the interaction of young people with the internet goes well beyond just bullying, although that is the subject of this bill. It goes particularly to grooming and contacting by people who are sexual predators. It also, though, goes significantly, as we have seen in recent days, to the issue of radicalising and also luring young people to be engaged with terror activities. Just in the last month, we have seen quite a bit of media about the three young British girls—15- and 16-year-olds—who have been lured to leave their homes in England and travel via Turkey to the Middle East. The reporting from the British authorities, after consulting with young girls who have previously been lured down this path, indicates that Daesh are using social media tools like Twitter, Facebook and Ask.fm as recruitment channels. That has had quite a bit of media.
One thing that has not had so much media is an almost identical case of three young girls who live—or lived—in Denver in the United States and who, again through social media, have been lured. Just as Senator Xenophon highlighted in Carly’s case that there was a misrepresentation about age and intent, this case in the US indicates that the information that has been put onto social media is, in their words, ‘Disney-like versions of life under extremism’. It portrays a very favourable view of what life is like there and things that will be available to those people, and it has lured, in this case, three young girls—17, 15 and 16—from the US. Thankfully, in this case they were intercepted as they passed through Germany on their way to Turkey and then Syria, and they were detained there and have been sent back to America. So that has been a good outcome, but it just highlights that this whole area of interaction of young people with social media is a thing that is changing in our environment and our society and that there are new measures required to deal with that, because of the scope of the impact on their physical safety, in cases involving sexual predators, and on the safety of those who are tempted to be radicalised as well as those who are bullied.
The other contextual thing that I think is important, particularly as we come back to the piece around cyberbullying, is that the intent of this legislation is to assist parents, principals and authorities in the process of protecting young people. It is not to replace their role; I think that is a really important point to emphasise. These kinds of programs help parents and principals and schools to work with young people and give them tools to overcome the things that are influencing young people, but they do not replace the responsibility of parents, predominantly, as well as other significant figures in children’s lives to help train up, develop and mentor young people to be resilient in our society, because they will have many interactions in their lives that go beyond the confines of the family home or a school environment, and we need to be imbuing our children with the wisdom and maturity to recognise threats, to recognise people who are seeking to tear them down and to have the resilience to cope with that. We should not ever get into a situation where somebody ends up being bullied and is impacted either physically, in terms of suicide, or in terms of mental health, and then people turn around and say it is the fault of the government because this program was not good enough. This program is a tool. It is an assistance. It is not to replace the prime responsibility of parents and other significant authorities in children’s lives to help that child be resilient. I just think that is a really important baseline we should look at.
So what does this bill seek to do? It seeks to establish the office of a Children’s e-Safety Commissioner, as well as setting out the functions and powers, and it creates an effective complaints system—that is the aim—for the harm of cyberbullying material targeted at Australian children. It gives two sets of powers. One is a set of powers to issue a notice to a large social media service requiring it to remove the material, and it also gives the commissioner the power to issue a notice to the person who has posted the material, requiring them to remove it and to refrain from posting the material or to apologise for posting the material. The measures in this bill are aimed not only to provide those powers but to give the tools to bring about a more rapid and effective address to where this kind of information is posted on the internet.
The reason why I support an intervention like this—generally I am about smaller government and fewer interventions rather than more—is the all-pervading presence of social media in young people’s lives. As I have watched young people interact with their peers and with social media, one of the things that have struck me is the power of things like Facebook and the fact that no longer can you invite one friend around to your house and enjoy their company. Now people are considering: if that is posted on Facebook, what other friends will see that? Will people feel excluded because of that? If you invite a group of people, there are acceptances up there.
I have heard young people discussing whether or not they should accept, because nobody else has accepted yet: ‘If I’m the first to accept and nobody else does, am I going to be excluded from the group?’ There are all kinds of dynamics that things like Facebook have brought in and that impact on young people. When I and many in this chamber were growing up, those considerations were not there. So we do need to respond in a measured way to the changed reality of the world for young people. How big is the problem in terms of cyberbullying?
The Social Policy Research Centre of the University of New South Wales, in 2014, conducted a study. It concluded that the best estimate of cyberbullying over a 12-month period is that 20 per cent of Australians aged between eight and 17 have been subjected to cyberbullying. That is a significant portion of young people in our society. The most prominent age group was 10 to 15, in terms of cyberbullying, and the estimated number of children and young people who were victims in 2013, which was the period studied, was some 463,000. That is a significant number of young people who potentially have ongoing issues around relationships, self-esteem, anxiety and depression, which can follow on from cyberbullying.
It also showed that managing the impact of social media creates a significant workload for people in children’s lives, such as principals and teachers in schools. This new dynamic of communication is very real there. The research found that some 87 per cent of secondary schools reported at least one incident of cyberbullying in 2013, which is the period that was reviewed, as well as some 60 per cent of primary schools reporting an incident as bullying. So it is, clearly, an issue that is affecting a lot of young people and those who work with them in a range of environments in our community.
Where will the commissioner be based? Essentially, he will be within the Australian Communications and Media Authority or ACMA. It will be an independent statutory office established within ACMA. The commissioner will have a number of roles in providing national leadership in this space. There are many people—not-for-profit groups, foundations and government agencies, both state and federal—so this office will look at working across government in a national leadership role as well as developing and implementing policies to help protect children in this space.
One of the key areas will be to set up a complaints system. The aim of this is to be responsive and effective for people, so when harmful cyberbullying material is targeted at an Australian child there is a way to deal with it. The commissioner also is required to work closely with other agencies as well as the police, the internet industry and child-protection organisations. The budget will be around $7½ million for those safety programs in schools and there will be a budget to support Australian based research and information campaigns about online safety. It is very much a focus here, understanding the problem and creating those effective and responsive complaint mechanisms for our community.
To look at the complaints system, in particular, there are two sets of powers the commission will have. The first is to issue a notice to a large social-media service, requiring it to remove material; the second is to the person who has posted it. The measures are designed to have an engaged process. At a tier 1 level it is about encouraging social-media groups to remove it, to be alert and to put in place their own programs. If the large social-media service repeatedly fails to respond to that encouragement, it can be moved to a tier 2 program. This means the commissioner can then enforce the legal duty for that group to remove cyberbullying material, and if they do not they will face substantial fines. We are talking in the order of $17,000 for each day that the large social-media group does not respond to the commissioner. It encourages cooperation and the groups to work and own their part of the solution to this problem. If that does not work and there is not that cooperation there, this is a significant power for the commissioner.
It also means that as well as administering that $7½ million they will take on responsibility for administering the current online content scheme, under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992. The bill does not make any changes to that act but it does mean that this commissioner will take on responsibility for the act. There will be a number of consequential amendments that come out of this act. There are some amendments to give the commissioner information-gathering powers, similar to those currently possessed by the Australian Communications and Media Authority under part 13 of the act, some changes to reflect the transfer of administrative responsibility for that online-content scheme and some minor consequential amendments to provisions in those schedules.
This is a scheme that has been supported by stakeholders, who see the damage to our children and the need for an intervention in this space. There are a number of people here from the independent schools association, from the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre and from the Australian Medical Association who deal with the consequences of this cyberbullying. They have looked at what the government is proposing and have identified that it will be good policy. They believe it will have a significant role in raising awareness and providing tools to protect young children. The stakeholder groups support it. The means are here to provide an effective and responsive system. But I come back to the fact that this is just one element in an environment that our young people are facing where society collectively, governments and internet providers need to find effective ways to help our young people to engage with social media and the internet as a positive and an enabling influence in their lives and to build the resilience in them to cope with the negative aspects—which could be cyberbullying and recognising the dangers of people like sexual predators.
An important area that we are frequently dealing with in our society at the moment is to resist the lure of the people who would seek to radicalise elements of our community to support, often in this case, Islamic extremism through Daesh in the Middle East. I repeat the point that I raised at the start of my contribution: this is a tool. It is something that is there to support parents and other authorities, but it should not be seen as a replacement for the role all of us have to work with our young people to help them to grow resilience and the ability to thrive in the society in which they live.