Govt moves to enshrine ISP-level abhorrent material blocking in law

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Govt moves to enshrine ISP-level abhorrent material blocking in law

Introduces online safety bill to parliament.

The federal government has introduced legislation that will formalise the blocking of abhorrent material by Australian internet providers and stand up a cyber-abuse takedown scheme for adults.

The online safety bill was introduced by communications minister Paul Fletcher on Wednesday morning, less than two weeks after consultation on the exposure draft wrapped up.

More than 370 submissions were received during the consultation, though none have been released by the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.

The new bill, which will replace the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Act 2015, hands the eSafety Commissioner a raft of new powers to combat harmful content and cyberbullying.

One such power will allow the commissioner to request or require ISPs to “block access to domain names, URLs or IP address containing [abhorrent violent content]” during an online crisis event.

The power was first recommended by a taskforce made up of digital platforms and ISPs in response to the livestreaming of the 2019 Christchurch terror attack, and has operated in an ad-hoc fashion ever since.

While a protocol is already in place between the eSafety Commissioner and ISPs for this, Fletcher said it will be updated to “guide a swift response from industry in response to a blocking notice”.

Persons – or ISPs – that fail to comply with a blocking notice to the “extent that the person is capable of doing so” will be subject to a civil penalty, according to the bill’s exposure draft [pdf],

Fletcher added that the commissioner will “need to consider the nature and likely reach” of the material and be satisfied it will “likely cause significant harm” to Australians before using the power.

Cyber abuse takedown scheme

The bill will also establish a cyber abuse takedown scheme for Australian adults, which Fletcher described as a “world-first” and based on the government’s existing cyber bully scheme for children.

“This new scheme provides a pathway for those experiencing the most seriously harmful online abuse to have this material removed from the internet,” he said.

The scheme will give the eSafety Commissioner the power to issue takedown notices to both online services when then they fail to remove abusive content and end users responsible for the content.

Online services, including social media services, designated internet services and hosting services, will be required to remove material within 24 hours or as determined by the commissioner.

The bill will similarly expand the children’s anti-cyber bullying scheme, giving the eSafety Commissioner the “power to order the removal of material from [all] online services”, not just social media.

The sharing of intimate images without consent is another area addressed by the legislation, which reduces the timeframe “within which intimate images much be removed following a notice”.

The commissioner will also continue to have the ability to issue those responsible for uploading intimate images notice, with those that fail to comply set to face civil penalties of up to $111,000.

Online safety expectations statement

Fletcher said the bill will also introduce a statement of “basic online safety expectations”, which will apply to all service providers, relevant electronic services and designated internet services.

“We expect that service providers will take reasonable steps to ensure that Australians are able to use this service in a safe manner,” he said.

“We expect that services are not able to be used to bully, abuse or humiliate Australians, and we expect the service providers will provide clear and readily identifiable mechanisms for users to report and lodge complaints about unacceptable use.”

Online services will be required to report on their compliance with “one or more specified applicable basic online safety expectations”, while the commission will be able to publish performance.

“The bill provides for the eSafety commissioner to publish statements about the performance of digital platforms in meeting the government's expectations,” Fletcher said.

“The intent is to drive an improvement in the online safety practices of digital platforms where they fall short.

“The Australian government believes the digital industry must step up and do more to keep the users safe.”

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