Politics

How Australia’s New Proposed Online Safety Bill Targets Queer People

If the Bill passes, you can bet that queerphobes and far-right media will pressure the e-Safety commissioner to target queer people.

online safety bill

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Later this month, Parliament will decide whether a government official will have the power to censor porn online and remove hookup apps from online stores. Oh, and they’ll be able to delete your nudes too.

The Morrison government says that its Online Safety Bill is meant to confront the nastier sides of the internet. Parts of it tackle online harassment, revenge porn, live streams of terror attacks and child abuse material. All very straightforward, no complaints there.

However, the draft law follows the steps of the Digital Economy Act (a British anti-porn statute) and FOSTA-SESTA (an American anti-sex work statute). Critics have focused on how the law would potentially censor pornography and de-platform sex workers.

What’s received less attention is how the Bill would be used to smother gender and sexual minorities online under the pretence of protecting women and children.

This makes it similar to Section 28, a law that prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” in UK schools from 1988-2003.

Censoring Queers Online

Of course, Queer people are accustomed to being censored online. In addition to policing trans bodies, Instagram’s nebulous “community standards” regularly sees queer artists’ accounts deleted or shadowbanned.

The draft law goes further, bestowing enormous power on a bureaucrat to decide what and, by extension who, we see online.

The proposed law grants the eSafety Commissioner (yes, we’re still doing the “e” thing like it’s the 90s) extensive new powers. They’ll be able to issue 24-hour takedown notices for content, compel search engines to omit search results and force online stores to remove apps.

The new system works like this: the commissioner can enforce age verification on adult content via ID, fingerprints or facial recognition, which is a whole other problem. Any Australian internet user can then complain about unrestricted adult content.

This means that, in practice, anyone could complain about pretty much any sexual content they find online. This would include nude selfies or consensual sex videos that you’d find on any alt account (and even some mains). Promoting an OnlyFans? Forget about it.

The commissioner could remove any content with coarse language, drug use, nudity, and implied or simulated sexual activity “not suitable for persons under 18 years”. This catch-all category comes from the National Classification Code which already leads to dodgy decisions.

For example, the film Tom of Finland (2017) about gay artist Touko Laaksonen is classified as appropriate for minors in a dozen countries, but it’s rated R18+ in Australia due to “sexualised imagery and nudity” which Finland prints on stamps.

But what do we expect from rules that were written before homosexuality was fully decriminalised?

Likely To Cause Offence

The trouble is whether content is “likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult”.

That’s pretty subjective and you can see how it favours majority groups. When asked, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher singled out fetishes like bondage, fisting and watersports as offensive. Not everyone’s cup of tea, sure, but two guesses which community he has in mind.

The commissioner’s broad powers and the Bill’s regressive definition of “adult content” put LGBTQ rights and visibility at enormous risk of coordinated attacks. In a country prone to moral panics about anti-bullying programs and trans kids, this is hardly speculative.

The current eSafety commissioner has said that she won’t use these powers to persecute sex workers (and, one would hope, queer people). However, it doesn’t really matter what she plans to do; the point is that they don’t need these powers in the first place.

It’s dangerous to make laws as if they’ll only ever be used by people currently in office. A future administration could appoint an anti-sex work crusader or career homophobe who would use these powers with malicious intent at any time.

From competent lawmakers, we’d expect to see safeguards, sunset clauses and built-in appeals processes. Instead, we’ve seen a sweeping set of powers rushed into Parliament a week after consultation closed, ignoring many of the 370 public submissions.

This reeks of a government desperate for a win. If they pass the law, the Coalition will frame themselves as champions of women’s rights, just nobody mention the rape scandals. The Opposition [sic] is expected to support the Bill, mainly so the government isn’t mean to them in the media.

After losing the postal survey, queerphobic pressure groups switched gears to behind-the-scenes lobbying. Everyone’s favourite anti-gay hate group, the Australian Christian Lobby, robo-spammed MPs with thousands of emails a day in an attempt to foil Victoria’s ban on conversion practices.

You can bet that queerphobes and far-right media will pressure the e-Safety commissioner to target queer people. After all, they’d have the power to suppress sexual health campaigns involving nudity, block downloads of hookup apps, and remove search results for queer sex ed and trans health.

The backlash against queer rights is often plain to see, like NSW mulling over a law that would prevent schools from acknowledging that gay people exist. Other times, it’s subtle. Like, say, an innocuously titled law about online safety.


Joshua Badge is a queer writer and philosopher living on Wurundjeri land in Melbourne. They tweet at @joshuabadge.