Ministers for the Department of Communications and the Arts

The Hon Paul Fletcher MP

Former Parliamentary Secretary
to the Minister for Communications

2014 Youth, Technology and Virtual Communities Conference

30 April 2014

I am very pleased to join you at the 2014, Youth, Technology and Virtual Communities Conference.

I want to congratulate the Queensland Police Service's Task Force Argos for organising this conference, and acknowledge the very important work it does in protecting, and rescuing, children from online exploitation.

The topic of this conference would have made very little sense twenty years ago. But profound changes in communications technology have materially altered the way that all of us live.

Who would want to go back to a world before the internet, before the pervasive adoption of mobile devices, and before social media?

I suspect very few of us would want to do so on a permanent basis — although the opportunity to be disconnected every now and then certainly has its appeal.

The very fact that we have all adopted this technology with such enthusiasm — that there are nearly 130 mobile services in Australia for every 100 people[1] — is a powerful indicator of the social and economic benefits it brings us.

But of course it also brings some dangers — and indeed many of you spend your working lives studying and fighting those dangers.

The Coalition does not support heavy-handed regulation of the internet. But we must do more to address cyber-bullying, predatory behaviour and children accessing age-inappropriate content.

It was a desire to better address some of these dangers that led the federal Coalition to take to the last election a commitment to Enhance Online Safety for Children.

Today I want to talk about the rationale for this policy — and the progress we are making to implement it.

My starting point will be to look at how the growth of the internet, over the past two decades, has triggered a growing range of policy measures to protect users — and particularly children — against some of the risks they face.

Next, I want to highlight some specific factors which led us in Opposition to conclude that a more comprehensive policy response was needed.

In the third part of my speech, I want to give an update of the government's thinking as we begin preparing the legislation. We received many thoughtful and well considered responses to the Discussion Paper the government issued in January: I want to address some of the issues raised in those responses, and touch on where we are in the process.

Policy responses as the internet has grown

Let me turn firstly, therefore, to the way that the growth of the internet has triggered legal and policy responses directed at protecting users.

Twenty years ago, when the internet was still largely a tool for a small group of users in academic and research circles, the idea that such responses were necessary would have made little sense.

Indeed, there was a strong strand of thinking at the time that the internet, or ‘cyberspace’, was a new world in which government had no place.

For example, in 1996 John Perry Barlow issued the ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’, which began:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.[2]

As take-up exploded and the internet became a mass-market consumer medium, the notion that it was a sovereign realm beyond the reach of governments did not last long.

Democratic governments will respond to the expectations of citizens, such as maintaining order and protecting their personal safety — offline or online.

Even more viscerally, citizens expect governments will do what is necessary to keep their children safe — offline or online.

Let's remind ourselves of the statistics on how much children use the internet. According to the Young and Well CRC, more than 95 per cent of young Australians use the internet regularly[3] and from a very early age.

ACMA's research shows that by the time they are ten to twelve many children are spending one to three hours online a day; by thirteen, social media use has become the norm; and by fifteen, the internet has become an integrated part of everyday life.[4]

The pattern we have seen with the internet — a new technology is developed, it is introduced, it brings benefits but also some risks, and in response governments regulate to require various protective measures against those risks — is one we have seen with many other technologies.

For example, when motor cars first came along, there were no speed limits, no traffic lights, no driver's licences, no requirements for seat belts or the many other safety measures we take for granted today.

If we look back over the past two decades, we can see that the growth of the internet has brought several ‘waves’ of policy response. An early response by the Howard Government was to add schedule 5 to the Broadcasting Services Act, applying Australian classification standards to material hosted on an Australian server. In 2006 there was the establishment of NetAlert, which amongst other things provided web filtering software to parents, so they could take steps to protect their children against viewing inappropriate content on home computers.

Factors underpinning our election policy

With continuing community concern about online safety, the Coalition in Opposition decided we should take a careful look at this important area.

We could see that the Labor Government was not making very much progress — and Stephen Conroy's signature election promise of an at-source content filter remained unimplemented several years later, consistent with all of the technical advice that it was unworkable.

More importantly, we recognised that there had been two key developments in the years since the Howard Government left office.

The first was the wide availability of smart phones and tablets — and the fact that many children have these devices and use them to access the internet when they are not under adult supervision.

According to Telstra research, 53 per cent of children own or access their first internet connected device before they are 10 years old;[5] and according to ACMA around half of 14-17 year olds access the internet through mobile phones,[6] and 43 per cent of them have their own smartphone.[7]

The second big trend was the explosion in the use of social media — by adults but particularly by children. ACMA research shows that around half of Australian children aged between 8 and 11 years use social media sites, a figure that jumps to around 90 per cent for 12 to 17 year olds.[8]

These two trends raised new issues in keeping children safe online.

Some of these issues were explored by the Federal Parliament's Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety, which in 2011 released a report entitled High Wire Act: Cyber-Safety and the Young.

In 2012, then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott established the Coalition Online Safety Working Group and asked me to chair the group.

We set about meeting with children between the ages of seven and seventeen — as well as parents and teachers — all around Australia. We formed some clear impressions — that were very consistent with the ACMA data.

In the groups we spoke to, almost every teenager owned a mobile phone, with most being internet-enabled smart phones.

We were struck by how many ten year olds said they owned an Apple iPod Touch — a device which, as well as storing and playing music, can access the internet over wi-fi. When we asked a typical class of children how many had a games console such as a PlayStation, Xbox or Wii, almost all in the group would say yes.

Another insight was the number of children who told us their parents did not realise that their iPod Touch or their games console gave them internet access.

As for social media, we found that if you ask a group of thirteen or fourteen year olds if they use one of the well known, large social media sites, almost every hand goes up.

Even amongst eleven year olds, around half say yes — despite most sites having a policy that users must be at least thirteen.

Another clear finding from our work was the very substantial new workload which social media has created for school principals and teachers, as well as parents.

An important part of our policy work was to carefully review the evidence about the pervasiveness, and seriousness, of cyberbullying.

Cyber-bullying occurs in a variety of ways, through a range of digital devices and mediums, most commonly smartphones and social media sites.[9]

The posting of humiliating or harmful photos, videos, or rumours is often exacerbated by other social media features (such as ‘comments’, ‘shares’ and ‘likes’) which can rapidly promote and spread the damaging content.

According to ACMA research, 21 per cent of 14-15 year-olds and 16 per cent of 16-17 year-olds had reported being cyber-bullied.[10]Other studies indicate that 53 per cent of teens have been exposed to cyber‑bullying, but with only a fraction telling their parents about it.[11]

As many victims have pointed out, when you are physically bullied in the playground, at least you know when you get home that you are safe for a while. But if looking at your smartphone or your computer immediately exposes you to a stream of derision, ridicule or hatred, then there is nowhere you can feel safe.

As one powerful indicator of the dangers of cyberbullying, the Queensland Commissioner for Children and Young People has identified cyber-bullying as one of the range of risk factors associated with youth suicide.

Troublingly, we also know that youth suicide rates are increasing, with the latest data showing suicides amongst 15-19 year olds rose ten per cent from 2011 to 2012.[12]

What we also know, very clearly, is that many children — and the parents or teachers to whom they turn for help — are unsure what to do when they have been the victim of cyberbullying.

The evidence strongly suggests that the remedy children want more than anything else in this situation is simply to get the harmful material down quickly — but it can be difficult to get this done.

These and many other issues were raised with the Coalition's Online Safety Working Group, and considered by us as part of our extensive consultation process, before we released a discussion paper in 2012 offering a range of proposed policy measures — including the idea of a complaints system for large social media sites.

Pleasingly, in 2013, the Gillard Government made a partial response to the Coalition's discussion paper when it announced a Cooperative Arrangement for Complaint Handling on Social Networking Sites with four sites: Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo and YouTube.

The Coalition welcomed these at the time — but highlighted that they are merely voluntary.

At the same time, other jurisdictions have been doing important work on these issues. The Law Reform Committee of the Victorian Parliament completed an Inquiry into Sexting last year.

In New Zealand, the Government last year introduced its Harmful Digital Communications Bill into the Parliament, with the aim of giving victims of harmful digital communications a quick and efficient means of redress. Some key ideas from the New Zealand framework have been incorporated into the approach the Abbott Government is pursuing here.

The culmination of the work we did in Opposition was the release of our policy during the election campaign, in which we committed to a series of practical measures to support parents and educators in creating a safer online environment for all Australian children:

  • Establishing a Children's e-Safety Commissioner to take a national leadership role in online safety for children.
  • Implementing an effective complaints system, backed by legislation, to get material targeted at and harmful to an Australian child, down quickly from large social media sites.
  • Investigating options for a simplified cyber-bullying offence.
  • In consultation with industry, improving safety options on smartphones, other devices and internet access services.
  • Establishing an advice platform with guidelines for parents about the appropriateness of individual media items for children.
  • Improved support for schools through a stronger online safety component within the National Safe Schools Framework, funding of $7.5 million for schools to access online safety programmes and the certification of online safety programmes.
  • Providing funding to support Australian based research and information campaigns on online safety.

An Update on the Government's Thinking

Following the election result, the next step was a formal consultation process on several of the measures which require legislative implementation, and accordingly in January this year we released a Discussion Paper dealing with these measures.

I want to acknowledge and express my thanks for the amount of effort and thought which went into the many responses we received.

I would like to first discuss some of the critiques made of the measures.

Some have seen them as a threat to freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is a vitally important value — and so we have sought to carefully limit any impact on freedom of speech with two specific design features.

First, these measures will apply only to communications directed at children; they have no impact on speech between adults.

The second limitation is that the scheme applies specifically to cyberbullying. It is not a general content regulation scheme.

Another claim is that this scheme will slow down the work of large social media sites in responding to complaints about cyberbullying content. For example, the Australian Interactive Media Industry Association (AIMIA) argued in its submission that:

…a legislated scheme will almost always be much slower than industry's own self-regulatory processes when it comes to responding to cyber bullying complaints.[13]

This reflects a misunderstanding of how the scheme is designed. A very clear principle is that the first step, before a complaint can be received and considered by the Children's E-Safety Commissioner, is that the complainant must have reported the objectionable content to the large social media site under its established processes.

Here, I do want to acknowledge that many large social media sites have significantly improved their complaints handling arrangements for removal of cyber-bullying material.

If a site receives a complaint and acts on it promptly, there will be no need for the complainant to go to the Children's E-Safety Commissioner — and the scheme will have no impact at all on the operation of the site's normal processes. It is only if the site does not respond that the Children's E-Safety Commissioner will get involved.

Another concern some have raised is that our policy specifically refers to ‘large social media sites’ and hence leaves smaller, newer sites unregulated — and free to operate to a lower standard. What is our framework going to do about Snapchat, or, or the next site which will explode out of nowhere, I am regularly asked?

There are three good reasons for concentrating on large sites — specifically, sites which have a large number of Australian users.

First, the bigger the site in Australia, the more likely it is to have employees and advertising revenue in Australia, and to have a substantial reputation in Australia, such that for both legal and corporate reputational reasons, it can be expected to comply with an Australian regulatory scheme. This is a better approach than a futile attempt to legislate for all social media outlets, no matter the size and no matter where in the world they are based.

The second reason for confining the formal operation of the scheme to large social media sites is that by doing so we can capture the sites that children and young people are most likely to be using. Facebook has 1.3 billion users globally[14], compared to an estimated 30 million for Snapchat.[15]

The third reason is that this approach amounts to a formal statement of expectations on behalf of the Australian community that these are the standards that we expect large social media sites to meet.

Let me now turn to comment on the way forward in relation to three key issues: the Children's E-Safety Commissioner; the rapid response scheme; and new, simplified cyber-bullying provisions.

Children's E-Safety Commissioner

A majority of submissions supported our proposal for the establishment of a Children's E-Safety Commissioner and for the Commissioner to take a national leadership and coordination role, ensuring consistent online safety messaging and minimising duplication in the delivery of initiatives.

Over coming months we will be finalising the administrative arrangements for this important office, including drafting legislation to establish the Office of the Children's E-Safety Commissioner and confer powers upon the Commissioner; transferring in resources from other areas of the public service; and of course appointing a suitably qualified person to this important new public office.

Effective complaints scheme

Amongst child protection organisations, parent bodies and educational organisations there was strong support for our policy to introduce an effective complaints system, backed by legislation, to get harmful material targeted at and harmful to an Australian child, down quickly from large social media sites.

While some industry participants urged us not to proceed with legislation in this area, the Government has a clearly stated policy commitment here.

We have had extensive discussions with the large social media sites, and these are continuing. I welcome the constructive engagement from these companies.

The government wants to ensure that the scheme as introduced does not unnecessarily impose extra cost or process requirements on the large sites. We recognise that they are global organisations with hundreds of millions of users and billions of items of content being posted every day.[16]

In our discussions with the large social media sites about the detailed operation of the scheme, our focus has been on addressing the key community concern which underpins our policy: namely, the difficulty that can be experienced, when a child is the victim of harmful cyberbullying material posted on a large social media site, in having that material removed.

One point on which there is agreement between the Government and the large social media sites is the importance of the Children's E-Safety Commissioner capturing and publishing data about complaints. This will allow the Commissioner to track the incidence of complaints about cyberbullying and to measure the extent to which such complaints are addressed by the large social media sites.

New, simplified cyber-bullying provisions

In our Discussion Paper we sought views on whether there is a need for a new, simplified cyberbullying offence, and posed several options for consideration. These included maintaining the existing criminal provisions; adding new, simplified criminal provisions; and introducing a new civil penalty scheme.

In the responses, there was strong support for better education and awareness about existing criminal offences covering cyber-bullying behaviour.

Quite a number of submissions — for example, from Child Wise, the National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, the Australian Federal Police, Early Childhood Australia and the Law Council of Australia — supported the creation of a civil penalty regime. This was seen as a more flexible and informal mechanism than the existing law in the area — and something that might allow a more timely response.

On the other hand, there was less support for introducing additional criminal law provisions dealing with cyberbullying. Several submissions pointed out that there are already criminal law provisions which would address such conduct — for example, section 474.15 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code, which deals with ‘using a carriage service to make a threat’ and section 474.17 which deals with ‘using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence.’

Some argued that if the policy objective is to have a rapid, flexible, non-legalistic response to cyberbullying, then this is unlikely to be achieved by adding further penalties to the criminal law.

Others pointed to the fact that police are understandably reluctant to lay criminal charges against a young person unless it is absolutely necessary — given that if you are convicted of a crime early in life, it can seriously damage your life prospects.

As some submissions highlighted, a new criminal provision, even if it involves lower penalties than the existing ones, will continue to face this difficulty.

For all of these reasons we have reached a view based on our consultations that introducing new criminal law provisions into the Commonwealth Criminal Code, specifically to deal with cyberbullying, is not something we intend to proceed with.

However I intend to recommend to the Attorney-General and Minister for Justice that they explore this issue with their state and territory counterparts with a view to determining whether a model provision that could be adopted in state and territory law is worth considering.


Let me conclude where I started — by noting the central importance of the internet in the lives of Australian children.

I am sure everyone here today shares my belief that the internet is a remarkable force for good — in keeping people of all ages connected, informed, entertained and educated.

But perhaps more than most, the people in this room also have a realistic appreciation of the darker corners of the internet — and its capacity to be used in ways that can endanger young Australians.

That realism is an inevitable consequence of the work so many of you do to identify — and respond to — threats our children face online.

We have a collective responsibility to help keep our children and young people safe.

It is a responsibility that many in this room have willingly shouldered — and I thank you for it.

The Abbott Government believes that the measures I have discussed today will be an important further step in keeping children safe online.

We certainly do not claim to have all the answers.

There is a lot of expertise in this room — and as we finalise these measures I am keen to draw on that expertise.

We look forward to working with you to help make the internet a safer place for Australian children.

[3] Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, Using technology safely and effectively to promote young people's wellbeing, March 2013, pg. 2

[4] Australian Communications and Media Authority, Like, post, share: Young Australians' experience of social media — Qualitative research report, August 2011, pg. 15

[5] Telstra, Safer internet and back to school survey (internal report),January 2013

[7] Australian Communications and Media Authority, Communications report 2011-12, Commonwealth of Australia, Melbourne, 2012, pg. 35

[8] Australian Communications and Media Authority, Click and connect: Young Australians' use of online social media — 02: Quantitative research report, Commonwealth of Australia, 2009, pg. 8

[9] Srivastava, Gamble & Boey, Cyberbullying in Australia: Clarifying the Problem, Considering the Solutions, International Journal of Children's Rights 21 (2013) 25-45, May 2013, pg. 29

[11] McAfee's Tweens, Teens and Technology report, May 2013

[12] Australian Bureau of Statistics,Causes of Death, Australia, Catalogue No. 3303.0. Belconnen, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia, 2012

[13] AIMIA Submission to the public consultation on Enhancing Online Safety for Children Interactive_Media_Industry_Association.pdf

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