A senate committee has given the government’s controversial online safety laws the green light, with the bill now expected to be debated in federal parliament as early as Tuesday this week.
The government-led Environment and Communications Legislation Committee handed down its report [pdf] on Friday, recommending that the Online Safety Bill 2021 pass without major changes.
The legislation would establish a cyber abuse takedown scheme for adults, requiring social media services, designated internet services and hosting services to remove material within 24 hours.
It would also give the eSafety Commissioner the power to require ISPs to block access to domain names, URLs or IP addresses containing abhorrent violent material, formalising an existing regime.
The report, which comes just two weeks after the bill was referred to the committee, said that the objectives of the legislation were “strongly supported” in submissions and by witnesses.
It said that while some concerns around the breadth of the commissioner’s proposed powers had been raised, existing mechanisms were adequate to ensure transparency, accountability and review.
These mechanisms include public and parliamentary scrutiny, statutory independent review of the operation of the laws and administrative judicial review of the commissioner’s individual decisions.
The committee made only one recommendation: that the government consider clarifying that the requirement for an industry code to be registered within six months “is for best endeavours”.
“The committee heard submitter concerns regarding the provisions within the proposed online content scheme that express an expectation that sections of the online industry and the commissioner should formulate and register industry codes within six months,” it said.
“The committee considers that these provisions do not require registration of the codes within that timeframe and that there is scope to extend this timeframe.”
In relation to the proposed blocking scheme, which some submissions disagreed with on procedural fairness grounds, the committee noted that parties would be able to negotiate on a case-by-case basis.
“Ultimately these matters would be independently determined through judicial or administrative processes, where both parties would have the opportunity to present their case,” it said.
The committee sought also to address concerns that the proposed online content scheme would extend to adult content online, another serious concern raised by submitters and witnesses.
It noted the commissioner’s view that the new scheme was intended to “focus on online harm” and that the “significant majority of adult content online” would not be captured.
“Critically, these concerns stem from key definitions which were said to be outdated and which are part of a current review to examine modernising the classification scheme,” it added.
The committee was particularly supportive of the proposed cyber abuse takedown scheme requirement that providers remove harmful content online within 24 hours.
“The committee agrees that the Commissioner should have the power to remove such material expeditiously, noting that the Commissioner would be amenable and empowered to grant time extensions where warranted in the circumstance,” it said.
Labor senators have recommended that the government consider “clarify[ing] the bill in terms of its scope and to strengthen due process, appeal, oversight and transparency requirements given the important free speech and digital rights considerations it engages”.
The senators also noted that a “number of stakeholders remain concerned about a range of significant matters, including how the bill interacts with the framework of safeguards put in place by the Telecommunications Assistance and Access regime”.
Greens senators recommended that the bill be withdrawn and redrafted.