Pursuing online safety, or undermining digital rights?

As part of its latest assault on the right of Australian Citizens to privately access a free and open Internet, the Online Safety Bill 2021 was recently passed by both houses of government.

This lengthy Bill grants extraordinarily broad powers to a so-called “E-Safety Commissioner”, with no statutory limits, in a short-sighted attempt to improve the safety of Australians online. Their rulings are not subject to appeal, and purport to extend across the entire world, regardless of jurisdiction or international borders. They grant the Commissioner near-unlimited power to censor the Internet, and compel assistance from all individuals, internet service providers, hosting services, social media platforms and communications services to facilitate investigations, without any regard for the security of these services or the privacy rights of individuals.

To make matters worse, the Bill is in no way limited to the more laudable objectives of preventing distribution of material that is harmful in its creation or violates users’ privacy (such as child pornography or non-consensual sharing of private intimate video), and instead seeks to apply sweeping restrictions to the entire internet. The Commissioner is empowered to censor or restrict access to any kind of adult content, prevent ordinary people from sharing videos of violent confrontations, intervene in online verbal disputes between school children or Australian adults, construct mandatory industry standards without parliamentary oversight, and indeed “do anything incidental to or conducive to” any of their other goals… all at their sole discretion.

While child pornography and similarly abhorrent material have no place in civilised society, these matters should be handled by Police under judicial oversight and limitation, not by an unaccountable and despotic government-appointed bureaucrat. These laws do not create a “safe” internet for anybody but the government. They harm activists, they harm whistleblowers, they harm sex workers, they harm civilian journalists, they harm free speech, they harm privacy, they harm security, and they harm every single Australian who uses the internet. But for Labour, the Coalition, and the new E-Safety Commissioner, it seems the ends truly do justify the means.

The Pirate Party agrees with Digital Rights Watch that this is an application of moral panic to online spaces. We reiterate their calls for a sunset clause, better safeguards against abuse, and that there is no undermining of encryption.

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