Culture

How A New Bill Could Block All Porn In Australia

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When a gunman opened fire at two mosques in New Zealand, it became the worst terror attack in the country’s history.       

The gunman live-streamed part of his massacre on social media, and it caused global outrage.   

It raised an important question: how was a live terror attack allowed to even be posted online in the first place?   

That question is at the core of a new piece of legislation that’s currently being debated in our parliament. The Online Safety Bill has been proposed as a way to tighten how Australia regulates harmful and explicit content on the internet.   

Knowing a bit about the story of how Australia has regulated content online up until now is important to understand why some free speech advocates, internet users and sex workers, are angry over the new law. 

And that story starts way before the internet even existed.   

Pre-Internet Classifications 

You might remember ads like this from when you were a kid. They were often put at the beginning of movies so that people knew how appropriate they were to watch.   

Every country has its own system for movie classifications, and in 1971 Australia formed an official board of people to figure out that system hereThey came up with different classifications for material, and they could also refuse to give something any classification at all.    

If something was refused a classification, it was illegal to sell, hire, advertise or import it into Australia.   

This classification system was importanfor parents wanting to rent videos for their kids in the 90s. And it was also a total workhorse – as new technology appeared over time, the classification system was just kind of expected to apply to it.   

Like with video games; a child-friendly game could get a G-rated classification, an adult game could get an R-rated classification, and then other games could just be refused any classification and banned from Australia altogether.   

But in its youth, the internet didn’t really have any regulation at all in Australia.   

Online Regulation Before The Online Safety Bill

That changed in 1996. The Howard government announced that it was drafting Australia’s first online regulation legislation.   

It pretty much expected that the same classification system for offline material would be able to be applied to online material again, like it was to new technologies in the past. Some content would be allowed, and other content wouldn’t be.   

It took three years and a lot of amendments, but the Senate eventually passed the commonwealth government’s Internet Censorship legislation.  

The legislation had a number of components to it. It described how there would be prohibited content online, and set out a complaints system for people to report offensive material they felt should be blocked.   

And it was widely criticisedIt sparked a massive censorship debate, and hundreds of internet users gathered in Australian capital cities to protest it.   

People wanted to know how the right to freedom of speech was going to apply online, whether the responsibility for censorship fell to internet users or providers, and what the government’s definition of ‘prohibited material’ actually was.   

The internet was new, but these questions weren’t. That classification system established in the 70s had always been subject to scrutiny because it had always been a messy system.   

Defining RC Material In An Evolving Space 

The government still today defines refused classification (RC) material as, “very high in impact that falls outside the generally accepted community standards.    

RC material is the stuff that’s always been illegal in Australia. And even before the internet existed, no one really knew exactly what constituted an RC status.   

Professor Kath Albury (Swinburne University)The problem with RC is it could be anything. It could be violence. It could be instructions on how to make a bomb – so a lot of the material that’s considered to be terrorist material would be in the RC category – or it could be sexual violence. 

For years, sex shop owners and adult content publishers had been operating under a system of broad and murky RC classifications. And that system just didn’t really translate well when it was extended to apply to the internet too.   

KAOver a period of many years, there have been attempts to one deal with the fact that our classification system was designed for magazines and videos and books. [When you] update that for internet content, there’s always been these issues like, at what level are you classifying? Is it a single web page? Is it a post on social media? Is it thread based? How would you allocate the classification? 

As time went on and the internet evolved, so did the efforts to regulate it.   

Protecting children from explicit and harmful content was always a huge part of that, which led the Labor government to propose a sort of online filtering system back in 2010.    

Then in 2015, Australia established the world’s first online regulatory agency, headed up by an eSafety Commissioner, to tackle a growing concern over cyberbullying among children.   

But our regulation around adult content online – what should be censored, banned or restricted – has always been grey. It’s hard to understand the regulations around restricted content like porn because different states have different laws.      

And fundamental questions about what constitutes harmful and prohibited content and who is responsible for it, have just never really been answered.  It’s why even today, a female’s bare nipple is prohibited on Instagram.   

KASo, this kind of messy, too hard space that is like totally tangled spaghetti has now been put into the Online Safety Bill.   

The Online Safety Bill 

What’s even harder for this new bill is that the internet just keeps growing, and so does the way that we use it.  

The bill has proposed things like rapid website-blocking provisions for “abhorrent violent material and reducing the amount of time platforms have to take down harmful content.   

It’s even suggesting face recognition technology be used by websites and platforms to make sure kids don’t see things like porn. And it also wants to bring in more regulations for adults on the internet too.    

Under the new bill, the eSafety Commissioner – who started working out ways to protect children from abuse online back in 2015 – could now also take down abusive content targeted at adults.   

This new bill, like every other internet regulation attempt in the past, has been met with a lot of criticism. The draft has been rushed into Parliament already, and even though there have been around 370 public submissions to amend it, that draft has remained largely unchanged.   

There are concerns that giving the eSafety Commissioner that much responsibility is too much for one person or office. It’s also not clear how transparent she’ll be able to be on the moderation decisions she must stand behind. 

In 2018, the US brought in similar laws to shut down harmful websites and thwart sex trafficking. But thousands of sex workers’ sites and social media profiles were unexpectedly blocked too, even Australian ones.  Australia’s sex work industry is worried the Online Safety Bill could do the same thing here.   

Gala Vanting (Scarlet Alliance, Australian Sex Workers Association)The biggest impact of this type of legislation is de-platforming for sex workers. It’s something that removes our access to the basic benefits of digital citizenship; our right just to exist as individuals online. But it also prevents us from doing things like carrying out our business or working safely.  

I think a lot of the impacts for sex workers, of legislation like this, tends to be in the form of unintended consequences and poor delivery, right? We want Australian adults to be able to choose what they see online, and that is very much part of what the classifications code is built to do. What this bill has the potential to do is to allow the office of an unelected bureaucrat to decide what Australian adults see online.  

The Takeaway  

A spokesperson working on the bill told me that nothing will change for sex workers. In fact, they said the explicit material that will be removed under the proposed Online Safety Bill is the same as the laws that are currently in place.   

But that’s kind of where the problem lies; it’s just an updated version of the same murky classification and censorship laws that every government has been using since the 70s. When really there was an opportunity here to update our system so that everyone on the internet, including sex workers, feels safe and accounted for.