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Thursday, 30 September 1999
Page: 9233


Senator FERRIS (10:51 AM) —This legislation has been attacked this morning in this chamber as an inappropriate attempt to censor the Internet. This is grossly misleading. We are simply recognising that service providers have a responsibility to remove illegal or highly offensive material once they are made aware of its existence. That is a very important part of this legislation. The Internet service providers are not currently required to monitor or classify the content accessed through or hosted on their sites.

I have been listening with some interest this morning to the quotes from Professor Nadine Strossen, who visited Australia a couple of months ago. I am curious as to why she would come to Australia at that time to call for the repeal of our legislation. I was reassured this morning to hear Senator Stott Despoja say that she simply wants to go back to the drawing board and does not want this legislation repealed as in fact the original motion called for in this chamber earlier this month.

The government's approach, our approach, goes out of its way not to be a regulatory burden on industry but endeavours to protect the community from child pornography, sexual violence and depravity, not to mention incitements to racial hatred, shoplifting and many other very unpleasant criminal activities. I was also pleased to hear Senator Bishop say this morning that he also recognises the principle that we do need to take a responsible attitude towards our children and our communities.

Professor Strossen was quoted in the Financial Review on 22 August as saying that the legislation is `an open-ended licence for whoever's enforcing the law to inject their values into it'. I say to Professor Strossen that she should go back to the United States and take a very hard look at the values that are pervading her country. She should take account of her President's advice and start to work to return values—his words, not mine—to young people in school communities. This may be difficult for Professor Strossen, considering that her most well-known academic work is a book entitled Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex and the Fight for Women's Rights. This is not, I would suggest to the Senate, something supported by Vice-President Gore, who this morning is quoted as saying at a very large conference being held currently in Vienna that more responsibility should be taken by Internet providers themselves and:

We must encourage the Internet providers to elaborate self-regulating measures.

Mr Gore called for more responsibility to be taken by ISPs. He said:

The Internet is fast becoming the most significant factor in the sexual abuse of children and the principal means to exchange child pornography.

An AAP article this morning states:

Child pornography on the Internet is rapidly becoming the key factor fuelling child sex abuse . . .

I am very pleased and very reassured to hear Senator Bishop and also Senator Stott Despoja recognising that we do have a very serious responsibility in this regard. The article further states:

European authorities are clamping down significantly on Internet porn.

And it goes on to talk about how in fact they are doing that.

We are actually a world leader here, in a very positive sense, not in a negative sense, as has been suggested by some people this morning. We are painfully aware of how young people's exposure in parts of the United States—Professor Strossen's home country—to highly offensive material on the Internet has led to definable tragedy. Both Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold who, sadly, killed some of their fellow students at Columbine High in Colorado had very extensive web sites and were known as competent Internet users. I believe the parents of at least one of those boys had absolutely no idea of what was actually going on in their own home, reflecting a problem that, I think, many families have.

As the minister has said this morning, and I think Senator Bishop also picked up on it, many parents, unfortunately, are totally unaware of the intricacies of the Internet. They simply do not know how to work the Internet, and they are unaware of it unless they come across it in their working life or unless they take courses on it. Children in this country are highly dexterous on the Internet, and I admire them for it—I am afraid that I myself am a little slower on it.

We had some very interesting evidence, as Senator Stott Despoja said this morning, from the Eros Foundation in this country, not a witness to an inquiry whom you would expect would necessarily support regulation on the Internet. But their evidence very clearly indicated that they are very worried about the explicit sexual violence that has been on the Net and the effect that that has on some of the sex workers in their industry. I commend them for making the points that they did in relation to that.

I know that a feminist such as Senator Stott Despoja would not want to allow material that exploits women in a sexually depraved way to remain on the Internet, and that was the point made by Fiona Patten in her evidence. Quite simply, the proponents of the free speech argument carry very serious responsibilities on this issue and, to me, they seem to be somewhat reluctant to recognise that the wider community also has a responsibility to protect our children from harmful material. Responsibility on this issue, in my view, quite correctly rests with government, with parents and with the industry.

We have been very careful to ensure that this legislation does not impose an unnecessary regulatory and administrative burden on the rapidly expanding area of e-commerce, and I note Senator Stott Despoja mentioned an assessment by one consultant that it will cost over $100 million. At no time was that evidence presented to the committee. In fact, as a safeguard in this particular area, a ministerial review of this legislation will be conducted before 1 January 2003, and this will determine exactly what effect the legislation has had on the Australian Internet industry generally. The actual extent of any compliance costs which this legislation may or may not impose on service providers will depend on the number and nature of complaints made to the ABA from 1 July 2000, and let us see what they are.

Senator Bishop noted in his dissenting report, and he said it again this morning, that the government has `deliberately sought to create the impression that its measures would solve the problem of unacceptable content' on the Net. The government did not make that claim, and Senator Bishop and I have discussed this before. We accept that there is no 100 per cent foolproof blocking technology on the Net, that nothing will ever be 100 per cent effective in this area and that there will be hundreds and maybe thousands of people who will tunnel their way past the filters—and I am aware of all the information that appeared on the Net to show how this could be done. I hope the people who put that material on the Net are aware that this means that some parents may not realise that their children can still access this material.

I say to Senator Bishop—and I said it to him before—does this mean we should do nothing? Simply because a law is not 100 per cent effective, should we do nothing? There are so many laws in this community—sadly, more and more—that are not 100 per cent effective. You only need to read the court pages of any newspaper to see that, but does that mean this government should do nothing? Does it mean that those laws might as well be repealed as well because they are not 100 per cent effective either? Is it a reason why we should tell the families of Australia that, in this emerging technological field, we should do nothing? Of course it is not and those opposite and the Democrats know it; the whole chamber knows it. That is why this is a very spurious motion.