Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts
Speech to the Cyberspace Symposium
Thursday 17 May 2007
- To the National Coalition Against Bullying Chair, the Hon Alastair Nicholson AO and board members;
- Members of the Centre for Strategic Education;
- State Minister for Skills, Education and Employment, the Hon Jacinta Allen;
- The Board and Dr Judith Slocombe, Chief Executive Officer of the Alannah and Madeline Foundation; and importantly,
- Advocates and supporters of children here today.
It is my pleasure to be with you in Melbourne today to open this important Cybersafety Symposium to raise awareness about the many challenges confronting parents, carers, educators, policy-makers and governments when it comes to how we can best protect our children in the online world.
The broad and diverse mix of speakers at this two day Symposium highlights the impact online technology is having in the lives of an increasing number of Australian families.
Internet and Opportunity
The Internet is indeed a window on the world and has transformed the way we communicate.
Properly harnessed, the World Wide Web has enormous potential as a tool for education, entertainment, interaction and global engagement.
The Internet can make a positive contribution to the way our children learn, develop and are supported.
Examples of this include inspire.org.au which provides young people with the opportunity to engage with inspirational people who are making a difference in the world or ybblue.com.au, the youth website of beyondblue aimed specifically at young people providing information, tips, personal stories and links for young people dealing with depression.
However, left in limbo without a proper legislative framework, technology and educational support, the Internet (and other emerging technologies) pose a genuine risk to society's most vulnerable citizens; our children and young people.
Risk and Challenges
Internet chat rooms, web content, social networking sites (such as ‘My Space' and ‘You Tube'), SMS and MMS communications, instant messenger and emails and now, peer-to-peer networks, have all challenged the ways we go about protecting our children.
Macabre websites are targeting vulnerable young people and encouraging them to commit suicide (and providing detailed information on how to do it) – often live online, pro-anorexia sites are setting up online support networks for sick girls to join ‘starvation clubs' and paedophiles are proving adept at exploiting every new and emerging technology, now including Skype, to prey on children.
Technology moves at an astonishing pace and any government policy, regulatory or legislative response in this area must be adaptive, multi-faceted and responsive.
It cannot be ‘set and forget'.
Matters relating to the protection of children must remain a ‘top of mind' consideration for governments and policy makers because as a parent myself, I know that parents are concerned about their child's wellbeing day, and night.
Whole of Government Approach
In the three years I have been Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, I have worked closely with my other Minister ial colleagues to develop a ‘whole of government' approach to child protection.
In a large and complex portfolio that deals with global players and powerful industries such as media and telecommunications, there is no issue more important than protecting our children.
But as many of you here today know all too well, there is no ‘one size fits all' way to protect Australia 's young people.
Protecting our children requires a multi-faceted approach that encompasses educators and schools, parents and carers, state and federal governments, policing authorities – here and overseas, and the wider Australian community.
On a national level, the Federal Government's response to the online protection of our children is broad, comprehensive and a mainstay of the Government's ongoing agenda.
As I said before, effective ways of protecting children cannot be a set and forget exercise.
The technology revolution and the cunning of online predators make it critical that we remain vigilant, responsive and ready to move quickly in order to stay ahead of online predators.
Many of the ways content reaches children and the types of devices by which it is received – be it home computer, hand held device, mobile phone SMS or MMS, or any other digital service – poses real challenges to many of our existing legal frameworks, and indeed, many long-held legal principles.
I will take SMS communications as an example.
Whilst we can prohibit the movement of offensive content via the Internet, the nature of SMS communications is that as a point-to-point transmission, it falls under the same legal definitions as normal telephony calls. And, as the lawyers in the room well know, the interception of telephone calls in Australia is highly proscribed and requires a warrant.
This is because we hold telephone calls, and SMS, to be private communications and as such, subject to robust privacy protections.
In light of these valid privacy considerations, how do we protect young people from offensive and illegal SMS material being sent around mobile phone networks.
It is clear that we need a developed and reasoned community debate about the level to which we are prepared to re-think our long-held legal principles to address changes in technology and ensure we continue to best protect our children.
These policy and regulatory considerations are not easy and they challenge the very framework of accepted orthodoxy, nevertheless we have a proud record of internet action and these challenges will not defeat us.
Australia as Internet World Leader
To date, Australia has been a world leader in many areas of Internet policy. We are leading the world in the development of a robust anti-spam regime with the SPAM Act and under this Government, became one of the first countries to regulate internet content over seven years ago.
Online Content Scheme
Known as the Online Content Scheme, this regulatory framework was established under Schedule 5 of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (BSA).
The Online Content Scheme has three main elements:
- the regulation of Internet content hosts and Internet service providers (ISPs) through the industry codes of practice and a robust complaints mechanism provided for by Schedule 5 of the BSA;
- a tough, ‘take down regime' for inappropriate, offensive and/or illegal content;
- a community education function intended to raise community awareness of Internet safety particularly in relation to the risks children may face on the Internet and the means by which those risks are best managed or minimised ; and
- criminal sanctions through State and Federal legislation.
The Online Content Scheme is designed to address community concerns about offensive and illegal online content at the same time ensuring that regulation does not place unjustifiable burdens on industry or place barriers in front of further industry development.
The Act provides for the development and operation of Internet industry codes of practice that are registered by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.
The codes require ISPs and Internet Content Hosts to take appropriate steps to protect the public from ‘prohibited and importantly, potentially prohibited' Internet content.
Internet content is ‘prohibited' if it has been classified RC or X18+ by the Classification Board or (if it is Australian-hosted) classified R18+ by the Classification Board and access to the content is not subject to a restricted access system.
Internet content is considered ‘potentially prohibited' if it has not been classified by the Classification Board but if it were to be classified , there is a substantial likelihood that it would be prohibited.
High Level of Compliance
Since the commencement of the online content scheme to 31 December 2006, the media regulator, ACMA has issued 356 take-down notices in relation to prohibited content hosted in Australia, and referred more than 3700 items of prohibited overseas-hosted content to filter makers so that offending content is identified on the system and blocked.
During the same period, over 950 items of child pornography and similar content has been referred to the relevant police authorities.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority, ACMA is the regulator responsible for the Internet in Australia and in addition to the ‘take-down' notice regime, ACMA operates a ‘black list'.
This list of addresses of prohibited or potential prohibited Internet content hosted outside Australia is provided to suppliers of family friendly filters so that relevant overseas-hosted websites can be identified and the content blocked.
Online Child Protection Squad – AFP
Notwithstanding these regulatory protections, the Federal Government has also established a new online child protection squad within the Australian Federal Police.
Once again this goes to my central belief that the protection of children must be ‘whole of government' and include all of the available regulatory, legislative, policing, technological and education-based methods at our disposal.
Online Child Sex Exploitation Team
Under the National Child Protection Initiative, the Australian Federal Police received almost $30 million in 2004 to fund the Online Child Sex Exploitation Team (OCSET) [pron. Ok-Set].
The Online Child Sex Exploitation Team was created to provide the AFP with national assessment and coordination capabilities for international and national referrals of child pornography.
Public education is a key responsibility for the OCSET team and $1.7 million of the AFP funding is being used for the continuation of its education and prevention programs aimed at parents, teachers and community groups.
Child Pornography Arrests
In the same year that OCSET was established, the largest ever online child pornography investigation resulted in the execution of 503 search warrants, the arrests of 250 people across the country and the laying of 2279 charges.
US Sex Offender Email Registration Bill
I am also aware of a recent Bill introduced into the United States Congress by Senators Charles Schumer (Democrat) and John McCain (Republican).
The ‘ Keeping the Internet Devoid of Sexual Predators Bill' 2007, known as the KIDS Bill, has recently been referred to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and whilst no text of the Bill has been made public, I note in media reports that the Bill will require registered sex offenders to submit their email address to law enforcement and that their email address would also then be placed on the US National Sex Offender Registry.
I will look at this Bill closely, as I am sure so too will the Minister for Justice, although I am advised that no direct representations have been made on the matter to date.
On a practical front, I am keen to understand how the enforcement mechanism would work and what could be done to ensure that any email address provided by a registered sex offender is properly and effectively monitored and how the same offender could be prevented from using alternative online identities.
Unlike registration of their residential address, which can be physically verified at any time by law enforcement officers on the ground, anyone can be anyone online.
I would also expect to see greater engagement by many of the companies operating online social networking websites in measures to protect our children.
But as I have said, I am committed to using any reasonable means and any available technology to protect young people and if this Bill has workable, practical and legal merit – and provided it is supported by the states and territories – we will look at it closely.
In terms of our current legislation in this area, the Howard Government has also toughened child pornography offences under the Criminal Code and ensured that these laws keep pace with technology.
Tough Criminal Code Provisions
Under the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Telecommunications Offences and Other Measures) Act 2004, the Federal Government introduced amendments to the Criminal Code Act 1995 (the Criminal Code ) which came into effect on 1 March 2005.
The offences target the use of the Internet to access, transmit and make available child pornography and child abuse material, as well as the possession or production of such material with the intent to place it on the Internet.
These offences complement other existing offences prohibiting the importation of such material into Australia , and each offence carries a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment.
These amendments to the Criminal Code place an obligation on Internet service providers or Internet content hosts to refer details of Internet content which depicts child pornography or child abuse material, to the Australian Federal Police once they become aware that their Internet service can be used to access child pornography or child abuse material.
Under the legislation, ISPs and content hosts face significant fines if they are aware their service has been used to access child pornography or child abuse material, and do not refer it to the AFP within a reasonable time.
The offences in the Criminal Code also prohibit using a carriage service to procure or ‘groom' a person, who is under 16 years of age, for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity with that person or so that a third person can engage in sexual activity with that person. The maximum penalties for these offences range from 12 to 15 years imprisonment.
Extension of Criminal Code to Bullying
There is also a general offence in the Code that prohibits the use of a carriage service with the intention to menace, harass or cause offence.
This offence provision also captures the use of a carriage service to encourage or incite violence, or use it to vilify persons on the basis of their race or religion.
Importantly in relation to today's Symposium, these legal provisions also extend to the crime of Cyber Bullying.
Rapid Technology Advances
But as many of you here today know only too well, technology does not stand still and whilst the content has stayed fairly constant over recent time - be it offensive web material, child pornography or bullying - the ways to distribute it and ‘take it to market' change almost weekly and with convergence, multiple forms of content can be delivered over a single device.
This is why as Minister, I have maintained a watching brief on technology and our regulatory frameworks and have sought to ensure our laws keep pace with the deployment of new devices and delivery platforms – now and into the future.
Content Services Bill
After a lengthy period of policy formation and substantial industry and stakeholder consultation, I am pleased to advise that last Thursday, I introduced the Communications Legislation Amendment (Content Services) Bill into the Parliament.
The objective of this legislation is to create a regulatory environment which allows new and innovative services to be made available for Australian consumers.
Critically, it aims to do this while also establishing effective means to protect consumers, particularly children, from accessing inappropriate or harmful content on convergent devices such as 3G mobile phones and through subscription Internet portals.
It is certainly not a form of censorship as adults will continue to be able to access content that would be inappropriate for children.
Historically, existing content regulation is specific to the platform over which it is delivered (for example, television under the Broadcasting Act, the Internet under Internet specific provisions or telephones under the Telecommunications Act).
The introduction of new services like 3G and video services through mobile phones, means that our platform specific regulations are becoming increasingly strained as they are applied to new media forms.
The development of a comprehensive and practical content regulation framework is a significant challenge in an era of convergence and new emerging technologies and services.
The Content Services Bill aligns, as far as is practical, the principles for regulation of content over online and convergent devices with those for traditional media.
Content Bill Outline
The Bill as proposed will –
- extend the current safeguards that apply to content delivered over the Internet or television to content delivered over convergent devices including live streamed services, for example, MA15+ streamed Internet content as part of a television program such as ‘Big Brother';
- prohibit content rated X18+ and content which is refused classification;
- ensure that R18+ material is limited to adults only with appropriate assess restrictions;
- prohibit availability and online distribution of electronic editions of print publications which have been classified ‘Restricted-Category 1', ‘Restricted – Category 2' or ‘Refused Classification' – for example, adult magazines currently available in some newsagents and adult shops.
- provide that material made available for a fee (ie commercial content) must provide an MA15+ and R18+ rating again with age restrictions to limit access;
- toughen the current ‘take down' regime, where it forces illegal content off the Internet, and introduce stronger sanctions for non-compliance including criminal and civil penalties.
Under the modified Scheme, the Government will also allow for industry co-regulation as a means of providing for regulatory frameworks to evolve and adapt with the technologies and services which they regulate.
It is the Government's intention that this Bill be passed without delay and I place on record my recognition of the collaborative role industry has played in the development of this new framework.
As I have often said, the protection of our children is a responsibility that we all must share.
Our approach must be whole of government and across the all levels of government – local, state and federal government.
And importantly, it must be above politics.
You have heard from me today about the work that has been done to date in the development and implementation of a strong national legislative response to child Internet protection, and the robust enforcement and policing response that has been a key plank of our protection regime.
Protecting Australian Families Online
And whilst I am proud of the Federal Government's work to date, this commitment to our children will be taken to a new level with the launch of the Government's new Protecting Australian Families Online program over the next couple of months.
Just as new technologies have been used to help curb the road toll through the introduction of seat belts, air bags, ABS brakes and mobile breathalysers, so too must we use technology to help parents, carers and educators protect children online.
Technology is there to help. It must not defeat us.
But, just as with the road toll, the deployment of these new technology measures must be backed up with support for schools, parents and carers and a public awareness campaign.
The Protecting Australian Families Online initiative is a $116 million package of measures that aims to bring all of these elements together and includes:
- $93.3 million dollars to establish the new National Filter Scheme to provide every Australian household and public library with a free PC filter or subsidised Internet Service Provider filtered service.
- Previous filter options were fairly blunt instruments but new filtering technology is sophisticated and capable of constant updating as things change.
- Not only can it protect children from inappropriate web based images, but critically, protect them in chat rooms, via peer to peer networks and when using emails.
- Parents can create a safe web for their home and only permit visits to sites that parents ‘white list' on the filter. They can prevent children from providing identifying information online – such as their last name, home address or phone number. And importantly, new filters can be adapted to different filtering levels for each member in the household – more filtering for the 6 year old and less for the 16 year old.
- Filtering options can also keep a watch on content that whilst not strictly illegal under state laws, such as ‘suicide' and ‘anorexia', do cause parents great anxiety particularly if their children are subject to peer pressure or suffer from mental illness.
- The filter selected under this Scheme will also block access to websites on the ACMA “Blacklist”.
In addition to the National Filter Scheme, the Federal Government is also providing –
- $18.3 million dollars for a national public awareness campaign to educate parents about online dangers, and the provision of telephone helpline support as well as online and printed information.
The related merger of NetAlert with the Australian and Communications Media Authority (ACMA) will ensure NetAlert is best placed to proactively support the community and able to benefit from a closer alignment with the activities and enforcement powers of the Internet and telecommunications regulator.
NetAlert has recently relocated from Tasmania to Melbourne's ACMA offices and a further funding injection of $5 million dollars is being provided under the Protecting Australian Families Online program to strengthen and amplify their education and advisory activities through their online information site, telephone helpline, a national schools outreach program, and the provision of teacher support materials and classroom tool-kits.
Ambitious World First
The Protecting Australian Families Online initiative is an ambitious world first and represents the single largest commitment made by any Australian government to protect children online.
Other options around the world, such as British Telecom's ‘Clean Feed' is only a partially effective and at this stage in the technology development, not nearly as effective as PC based filters.
BT's ‘clean feed' system is a commercial service that must be bought by families and where it falls dangerously short is that –
- Clean Feed only blocks known sites – about 4000 websites in an online world in excess of six million sites.
- Clean Feed also only blocks websites that we can track and locate and invariably, once these sites know they are blocked, they shift to a new domain name, get through the Clean Feed filter and have to be blocked all over again.
- But most importantly, Clean Feed only blocks web site content – it does not filter emails, chat rooms or peer-to-peer networks – and as such, can give parents a false sense of security.
To date, only PC based filters – loaded at the home computer level, not ISP level – can filter and or block all content and provide the more effective level of protection technically available.
Libraries Slow to Show Support
I do note however that whilst the Federal Government has committed to providing a free filter for all libraries under Commonwealth control, there has been a reticence by some state and local governments to take on board the free filtering products for the libraries under their control.
Some states have comprehensive filtering programs whilst others only offer a loose set of guidelines with no enforcement mechanisms or ongoing support.
Not every family has nor can afford a home computer and it is important that children using the Internet in public places are afforded the same protections as children in private homes.
I will continue to encourage our libraries, and the various bodies that fund them, to take on board the filtering of Internet content for publicly available library terminals and hope that the balancing act between censorship concerns and protecting our children is met with commonsense.
This matter is serious and has moved far beyond a guidelines only based approach to protecting our children.
Corporate Partnership Programme
I am also delighted to advise you that the Protecting Australian Families Online initiative has been greeted warmly by Australia 's corporate sector. I have recently written to over 300 CEOs across the country to invite them to join our corporate partners programme and the response has been overwhelming.
As I have said earlier today, protecting our children is a responsibility we all must share.
Standardised and Increased Penalties
In addition to these measures, the Government has also commenced a large body of work dealing with the protection of children across a broad spectrum of communications platforms including by Internet, mobile phones, other converged devices, digital broadcasting platforms and indeed, the postal system.
Whilst all platforms currently prohibit the transmission of child pornography, and other offensive and illegal content, I want to ensure that penalties are both standardised and increased in line with the nature of these abhorrent crimes against children.
Need to Develop a Nationwide Curriculum Module
The final aspect of the Federal Government's Protecting Australian Families Online package will comprehensive support for schools to address Internet issues including cyber bullying through our classrooms.
Physical bullying such as hitting, punching, name calling and teasing are relatively easy for schools to observe.
Covert bullying, such as isolation and exclusion, while less visible, can nevertheless have a devastating impact on young people. Furthermore, the nature of bullying is evolving as technology increasingly becomes an integral part of children's lives and a powerful way to reinforce the social isolation of a vulnerable young person.
There is virtually no reliable evidence about the nature and prevalence of covert or cyber bullying in Australia .
We need a firm evidence base on which to develop and evaluate appropriate strategies to address this disturbing form of bullying.
And that is why the Australian Government will be investing in research into covert bullying.
I am advised by my colleague, the Minister for Education, Science and Training, the Hon Julie Bishop, that two important projects have been commissioned that will develop practical interventions and prevention strategies to address covert bullying at a whole of school level. It is anticipated that these projects will be announced shortly in National Safe Schools Week.
Alannah and Madeline Foundation
To conclude my remarks today, I would like to extend my congratulations to Dr Judith Slocombe and the many supporters of the Alannah (AH-LARN-AH) and Madeline Foundation for the work they have done today to highlight the issues of cyber bullying, the online protection of children more broadly and their long standing work in keeping children safe from violence.
As I have said today, protecting our children is at the very core of a civilised society and a measure of our advancement as a nation.
I hope that my remarks today will serve to reassure you of the Government's, and my own personal commitment, to leave no stone unturned in the quest to keep our children safe.
It is a responsibility for every Australian; it must occur across all levels of government and importantly, it must remain above politics.
It is unfinished business and the nature of the vice means that in all probability, it always will be.
I thank you all for your commitment to the protection of children and I want to assure you that you have mine.