House passes Online Safety Act as Senate opposes 'big tech' influence committee

Labor supports passage on the understanding government amendments will be forthcoming.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The Australian House of Representatives has agreed to the country's new Online Safety Act that would hand the eSafety Commissioner powers to order the removal of material that seriously harms adults and hold platforms accountable to a set of yet to be determined basic online safety expectations.

During a debate on the Bill on Tuesday, the federal opposition agreed with testimony from tech companies and civil liberties groups that the legislation was "rushed".

"We are concerned about a number of aspects of these Bills … firstly, there is the government's delay and mismanagement of the process of getting a Bill for a new Online Safety Act before the Parliament here today, which has substantive consequences," Shadow Assistant Minister for Cyber Security TimWatts said.

"Secondly, there is the government's inability, after all of this time, to address key stakeholder concerns about serious, important, and legitimate issues enlivened by these Bills."

Labor, however, offered overall support for the Bill, with Watts highlighting his party is expecting "further changes" to address their concerns.

"The safety of Australians online is of real importance, and Labor will work with the government to iron out these concerns in these Bills in time for the debate on this Bill in the Senate," he said.

"But, in the meantime, Labor will not oppose these Bills in the House of Representatives, and we will support passage through this place on the understanding that government amendments will be forthcoming.

"We have been in good-faith conversations with the government, and we expect those good-faith conversations to result in further changes."

The Online Safety Bill 2021 contains six key priority areas: A cyberbullying scheme to remove material that is harmful to children; an adult cyber abuse scheme to remove material that seriously harms adults; an image-based abuse scheme to remove intimate images that have been shared without consent; basic online safety expectations for the eSafety Commissioner to hold services accountable; an online content scheme for the removal of "harmful" material through take-down powers; and an abhorrent violent material blocking scheme to block websites hosting abhorrent violent material. 

Waved through simultaneously, the Online Safety (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2021, meanwhile, repeals the Enhancing Online Safety Act 2015 upon commencement of the new Online Safety Act

The Australian Greens said it opposed the Bill because it believed the legislation was poorly drafted and could lead to widespread, unintended consequences. Among other things, the party said it was concerned that people opposed to sex work, pornography, and sexual health for LGBTIQ+ people could abuse the complaints process to seek to have lawful online adult content removed. 

"If we had some basic digital rights enshrined in this country, then you could have a sensible debate about things like what the government is proposing, because people would know that their rights were protected," Greens leader Adam Bandt said. "But at the moment we can't know that. 

"Why does the government want to go beyond the stated intent and name of the Bill and start regulating, in an unacceptable way, what adults are able to do online? It is part of creeping moves to exercise greater power over our freedoms and responsibilities, and that's why in its current form, unless it's withdrawn and redrafted, the Bill cannot be supported."  

Over in the Senate, Liberal Senator Alex Antic has failed to have his motion to stand up a Select Committee on Big Tech Influence in Australia passed, with a 32-32 vote.

The committee proposed by Antic would have been charged with inquiring into, and reporting on, activity by major international and domestic technology companies.

Specifically, the senator wanted the committee to look into big tech's management of disinformation, misinformation, and malinformation, including "shadow banning", "de-platforming", "no platforming", and "demonetisation"; fake accounts and bots that engage in online campaigns; terms of service of their platforms, including user privacy settings and use of user data by the companies and third parties; and the extent of compliance with Australian laws.

Labor Senator Katy Gallagher said the opposition was not in support of the committee due to the government's own declaration that there are already too many select committees. Similarly, the Australian Greens withheld its support.

"There is no doubt that we do need an inquiry into the influence of big tech in this country, particularly its impact on our democracy and our media and the way that big tech has allowed for the proliferation of far-right extremism on digital platforms in Australia," Greens deputy leader Senator Nick McKim said.

"However, this motion contains language which concerns the Greens. It is language which is used overwhelmingly by the far right, including terms like shadowbanning and deplatforming. While we won't be supporting this motion today, we do remain open minded and of the view that we need to have a look at some of the impacts of the big tech sector."


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