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Monday, 30 August 2004
Page: 26626

Senator HARRADINE (1:23 PM) —The Crimes Legislation Amendment (Telecommunications Offences and Other Measures) Bill (No. 2) 2004 by and large deserves support. There are some aspects of the bill, however, that are disconcerting. Major issues have not been addressed by this legislation. The legislation deals with the issue of abuse and the definition of child abuse material. The legislation defines child abuse material as:

(a) material that depicts a person, or a representation of a person, who:

(i) is, or appears to be, under 18 years of age; and

(ii) is, or appears to be, a victim of torture, cruelty or physical abuse;

and does this in a way that reasonable persons would regard as being, in all the circumstances, offensive ...

Let me deal with the matter of offensiveness. One child expert, Professor Freda Briggs, has described certain types of child pornography as offensive. The words she used were `child abuse'. That material is currently available, freely, on the Net and without any proper regulation. This is very disconcerting to many parents. The legislation is meant to deal with the use of the Internet to facilitate or exploit the sexual abuse of children through child pornography. Of course, I support that aspect of it, but I want to ask why we are not dealing with the use of the Internet to facilitate or exploit the sexual abuse of children through children's accessing pornography on the Internet, because exposing children to pornography on the Internet is child abuse too. Why isn't that dealt with by this legislation?

Parents whose children use the Internet are advised to take a number of precautions, including the installation of Internet filters and ensuring their children are supervised, but many children are still falling prey to Internet pornography. The current regulations are dealing in an unreal world, because many children are unsupervised and fall prey to Internet pornographers. Last year the Australia Institute found that 84 per cent of boys and 60 per cent of girls aged 16 to 17 years of age have had accidental exposure to Internet sex sites. The Institute reported that this included images of bestiality and violent scenes of women being raped, and that studies showed a `relationship between pornography and sexually aggressive attitudes and behaviour'.

I was very pleased when the Australian Labor Party was going to adopt a more restrictive approach to the online regulatory scheme, because that scheme is totally inadequate at the present moment and is largely influenced by the force of the Internet Industry Association's rejection of a requirement for compulsory filtering on an opt-out basis. However, I was very disappointed when the federal opposition eventually decided, by way of an internal policy change, not to accept the Australia Institute's proposal to protect children from pornography on the Internet. The Australia Institute proposed that there be mandatory filtering of the Internet to block pornography, with adults having the option to opt out of the system.

Parents across Australia want some help so that they can allow their children to access the benefits of the Internet without the constant danger of their being confronted with Internet pornography. The government and the opposition should bite the bullet and provide families with real solutions to fix this problem. It is a vast problem out there, and one which I believe will become significant in the next few months. To protect children and to assist parents, Internet service providers should provide compulsory filtering of Internet content on an opt-out basis. Many parents do not know the importance of installing filters and of supervising their children's Internet use. Those adults who do not want Internet content filtered can elect to opt out of the system.

The Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts commissioned and published a report from IT consulting company Ovum, which provides a fully costed proposal for a system of Internet filtering. Ovum estimated that set-up costs for ISPs would be $45 million, with recurring annual costs of $33 million. These costs could be covered by the government and they represent a very small amount when it comes to protecting our children. The friends of the pornographers have argued for years that any proposed action to protect children will not work and that community education is the only answer. The evidence is in that community education has had only a limited effect. If we want to protect children from damaging pornography, we cannot continue to sit back and do nothing.

The Internet Industry Association, as I indicated, have fought a rearguard action to thwart attempts to protect children from Internet pornography. I will deal shortly with the new third generation material. The Internet Industry Association have demonstrated their total lack of interest in helping parents to protect their children from Internet pornography. Following their `family friendly ISP' branding scheme, which merely requires ISPs to comply with the IIA codes of practice, just 11 of their 563 ISP members have signed up. That is how much control they have over this. They have signed up only 11 of their 563 members—just under two per cent of ISPs—following their much heralded Internet content plan.

If the government or the opposition want to find a way to help parents, they should remember that the Internet Industry Association is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Children should be protected from pornography—Professor Briggs called it child abuse—and it is not dealt with in this legislation. Almost everyone agrees that children should be protected from pornography, but not enough has been done to protect children from damaging images accessed on the Internet or by devices like 3G mobile phones.

How can we address this appalling situation so that children can enjoy the great benefits of the Internet and mobile telephones, without the pitfalls? Also bear in mind that the kids that I am talking about are, from a very early age, computer savvy and mobile phone savvy. As I mentioned, one way would be through compulsory Internet filtering. The Australia Institute found that 93 per cent of parents `would support a system that automatically filtered out Internet pornography going into homes unless adult users asked otherwise'. With this safeguard, those children with parents who do not know about filters or who face work or other pressures and are unable to supervise their children's Internet use will at least have some limited protection.

The online content co-regulatory scheme was set up to protect Australians from unwanted pornography and to take down illegal sites. The evidence collected by the Australia Institute shows that the current regulatory arrangements to protect children have failed. New third generation mobile phones are proving a further challenge to the protection of children. We should be worried about the potential for damage to children from their mobile phone use. A 2003 forum co-hosted by Childnet International and the Japanese Internet Association heard that children can be put in danger by what they might see or by whom they might meet online.

The government has referred the issue of how to handle pornography on 3G mobile phones for further review. There are over 14 million mobile phone accounts operating in Australia. Roy Morgan Research says that one in six teenagers own a mobile phone. More than 20,000 mobile phones are linked to the new 3G, or third generation, network. These new phones and similar mobile devices, such as personal digital assistants, can allow access to pictures, video streaming and Internet content. To date, 3G coverage is limited to Adelaide, Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

Mobile phones are virtually impossible for parents to supervise. There are no filtering devices available for Internet enabled mobile telephones, but carriers should install filters on their networks. At least one of Australia's 3G carriers already offers so-called adult content. It uses a PIN as a way of restricting access to minors, but the Australian Communications Authority has described PINs as `nearly useless'—that is the view of the Australian Communications Authority—for preventing children viewing content, as they change hands easily. This will be an unwelcome surprise to many parents who see mobile phones as a way of maintaining easy contact with their children and ensuring their safety, not as technology which might threaten their wellbeing. While parents might buy a mobile phone for their children's security, children are more likely to see it as an expression of their growing independence. Children have the skill and competence to use the technology, but they do not always have the maturity to decide what they should or should not see or do.

In May the government issued directions to the Australian Communications Authority to put in controls over SMS and multimedia messaging services, or MMS, so that children will not be able to see MA or R-rated content—X-rated content is not permitted—but it is very difficult for telecommunications companies to distinguish between a mobile phone used by an adult and one bought by an adult for their child. These safeguards need to be put in place before a new device or technology is put onto the market, not after. We need to protect our children; whether children are using computers or mobile phones, we have to ensure that they are safe. We have wasted enough time on this legislation. It ought to go through, but it ought to go through with the recognition that child abuse is as described by Professor Briggs.

Very young people have had access to some of this material, including R-rated material and X-rated material. I have had quite a number of distraught parents writing to me and telling me stories about their children—very young children; I am talking about three or four years of age—who have seen this material on the screen. These parents have appealed for me to do something. Of course they are emotionally disturbed and upset. I can recall one particular case where a seven-year-old had seen so-called sexually explicit material and then tried the actions out on a younger sibling who was two years of age. We have got this potential because we are not doing anything about it.

I would like to know if the original bill has been amended, as Senator Greig said, by the Attorney-General's Department on the request of the EFA—Electronic Frontiers Australia. I would like to find out in the committee stage precisely what was required, what was requested and what amendments were made on behalf of the EFA.

I will leave the matter there. I do not suggest we hold this bill up at the present moment; if there is an amendment, as I understand it, then it has got to go back to the House of Representatives and if it is unamended it can go into law. That is as I understand it. This matter has really got to be looked into at some stage and looked at very seriously. If one of the major parties came out with a policy on this particular matter, then there would be millions of parents around the place who would be very pleased that such a decision could be arrived at which would truly protect their children.