Communications Paul Fletcher and eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher and eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

The federal government’s controversial Online Safety Bill is set to become law, with senators from both major parties supporting legislation that considerably expands Australian eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant’s ability to censor the internet.  

Late on Tuesday night the Senate passed the bill with support of Coalition, Labor and One Nation senators.

The bill gives a variety of new powers to the government appointed commissioner, including:

  • Ordering websites or apps to take down online abuse, image-based abuse and seriously harmful online content within 24 hours, or face removal from search engines and app stores
  • Rapidly blocking websites that are hosting abhorrent violent and terrorist content
  • Increasing the maximum penalty for using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence to five years
  • Demanding online R18+ content to be removed from platforms
  • Implementing a “restricted access system” that could force Australians to prove their age by uploading identifying documents or agreeing to facial recognition.

While stakeholders have generally agreed with the stated aims to reduce online abuse, the bill has been widely criticised for giving to an unelected official broad powers which could — if used to their full extent — seriously limit what Australians can do and see online.

The government has promoted the Online Safety Bill as both proof of its willingness to crack down on tech giants (à la the news media bargaining code) and to bolster its credentials as willing to help women and other marginalised groups who face abuse online. 

But privacy advocates and representatives for the sex industry say the law could actually do the opposite: it could encourage tech giants to crack down on the online presence of women and marginsalised groups to avoid the penalties in the bill. 

What can’t be ignored is the version of the bill that was left on the floor of the Senate. The Senate voted to reject amendments that included: 

  • Carve-outs for sex education and harm reduction content, works of art and sexual minority material
  • A requirement that platforms shouldn’t unnecessarily remove content (to combat the overzealous censorship to pre-empt takedown notices)
  • And a compulsory independent review of the act.

While Labor supported some of these amendments and made its displeasure known about the rushed nature of the bill, it ultimately waved it through all the same. 

What we’re left with is a law that relies on the discretion and grace of the government and platforms. That will worry those whose lives and livelihoods depend on the internet freedoms that this bill could curtail.