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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
24/03/2017
Estimates
COMMUNICATIONS AND THE ARTS PORTFOLIO
Office of the Children's eSafety Commissioner

Office of the Children's eSafety Commissioner

[12:10]

CHAIR: Welcome, Commissioner, and congratulations on your appointment. I understand this is your first appearance before this committee in this capacity; is that correct?

Ms Inman-Grant : Yes, it is. Would you permit me to issue a quick opening statement?

CHAIR: I was just about to ask if you would like to make an opening statement. Welcome. We look forward to working with you on this committee.

Ms Inman-Grant : Thank you so much. I would be delighted, and thank you for the opportunity to make this opening statement. You know that I have been here only eight weeks. It has been a relentless pace—a good relentless pace—but I have been very fortunate to have incredible predecessors and staff before me who have built an incredible foundation for the office as a leader in online safety for Australian children. Despite the short time our office has been in existence—20 months—other countries are looking to us as a model. In the US, the UK and Ireland there have been calls to create a similar office based on the Australian e-safety model.

I think 2017 is going to be a year of extension and further opportunity. You may know that there is legislation pending in the House, tabled on 9 February by Paul Fletcher, which will expand the remit of the office from the children's e-commissioner's office to the e-safety commissioner's office. That will allow us to expand our remit and to really meet the safety needs of all Australians, particularly those from vulnerable communities.

As we step up to this challenge we will be rolling out an online complaints tool for those experiencing the devastating effects of image-based abuse. That will be another world first. And this will be a natural extension of the support and resolution pathway we have been providing vulnerable, young Australians through existing mechanisms, including our child's sexual exploitation hotline and our cyberbullying scheme.

Just this week our cyber report team was successful in effecting the removal of 13 intimate images of a young Australian girl from an overseas site. Over the course of the past six months we have had 93 images removed from overseas sites. Even without the civil powers and the tools set up yet, we are starting to make a difference. That is something I am very pleased about. We are also working with our colleagues at the Department of Social Services to deliver an online portal for online Australians to build and learn. It will help improve their levels of digital literacy and also improve their online safety.

I will wrap up closely, but we do have a number of major digital transformation initiatives that we need to enact. The website, for instance, is the window to our soul, so we need to make sure that we have a complaints portal that is intuitive and seamless, where our team is servicing citizens rapidly and where the information is intuitive and engaging. We currently have 547 pages of content, which is a lot of content, so we are trying to make it easy to navigate so people can find what they are looking for.

I will end by saying that this is an incredible opportunity. It feels like the culmination of my life's work to be able to help young people, and now the broader Australian community, to engage safely and positively in the online world. I thank you for working with us, and I hope I can answer your questions sufficiently.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Ms Inman-Grant. As I said, welcome. If you are half as successful as your enthusiasm, I am sure you are going to be very successful this year.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you, Ms Inman-Grant. I want to talk about the two-tier scheme for the removal of serious cyberbullying material targeted at Australian children. It was established fairly recently—in 2015. Can you tell me whether the scheme is proving to be effective?

Ms Inman-Grant : I believe the scheme has proven to be effective. To date we have solved or processed 334 cases. We have seen a 46 per cent increase over the past six months of reports. Of course we have been set up to be a safety net after a user, a parent or a young person has reported to the social media site, so a lot of the cases we get are the really tough cases, the cases that have been missed or where there is a grey area. These sometimes take a lot of time, but I am very satisfied with the results that we have had.

Senator URQUHART: Great. Your annual report of 2015-16 says that the office received 186 complaints about serious cyberbullying between 1 July 2015 and 30 June 2016. Can you tell me what proportion of those were resolved under tier 1 of the scheme and what proportion were resolved under tier 2 of the scheme?

Ms Inman-Grant : I may pass this over to Maria Vassiliadis for her input.

Ms Vassiliadis : We do not have the statistics to differentiate between the tier 1 and tier 2 resolutions.

Senator URQUHART: So you do not keep them?

Ms Vassiliadis : We certainly have them in the office. We can take that on notice.

Senator URQUHART: Yes. You just have not got them with you today. If you could get back to us, that would be great. Also in the 2016-17 reporting year to date—and you talked about the 334; is that what that figure is?

Ms Inman-Grant : That is the figure to date in the 20 months that the cyberbullying scheme has been in operation.

Senator URQUHART: Can you tell me how many of those were resolved under tier 1 and tier 2 and how many have been resolved?

Ms Inman-Grant : Yes, we will take that on notice. I would say that to date we have largely actually exclusively used our informal powers. We have 11 social media partners that we are working with and most recently we brought on airG and Snap. All of these have been resolved informally so we have not had to issue an end-user notice or use our formal powers in any way.

Senator URQUHART: Okay, so the whole 334 have been resolved?

Ms Inman-Grant : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: Excellent. So most of those are resolved under that informal process?

Ms Inman-Grant : Right, and I think that is what makes this scheme so unique. We are using the relationships and the mutual respect that we have built over the years. As you may know, I come from the social media world. I think that helps me understand what the social media company's true limitations are but when we can also push them a bit further.

Senator URQUHART: Can you give me a rough indication of the proportions that may have been resolved under tier 1 and tier 2?

Ms Inman-Grant : In terms of tier 1 partners we have got Twitter, airG and Snapchat. To my knowledge we have not had any bullying complaints from any of our tier 1 partners. The majority of the complaints we have received have been directed towards our tier 2 partners. But the informal discussions have still helped us facilitate positive outcomes from those complaints.

Senator URQUHART: Great. Are there any social media providers that have resisted incorporation into the scheme?

Ms Inman-Grant : I would have to take that on notice, unless Maria has any further—

Ms Vassiliadis : Is your question: are the ones we have within the scheme cooperating with the office? Is that the question?

Senator URQUHART: There are probably two parts of the question. There is that but also are there any providers who have resisted being incorporated into the scheme?

Ms Vassiliadis : At the moment all of the companies that are within the tier 1 and tier 2 scheme have been cooperating, as our commissioner has indicated, without us having to implement any of our formal powers. At the moment we have identified the key plAyres in the market that we believe we should be working closely with. If there are any other companies out there that we feel that we need to reach out and bring into the fold then we certainly will but at the moment I think we have identified the key plAyres.

Senator URQUHART: So you would do that as a matter of course—reach out?

Ms Vassiliadis : Yes.

Ms Inman-Grant : For instance, there was a complaint by an Australian mother about an eight-year-old who had been allegedly groomed on the website musical.ly. We have reached out to musical.ly in the past and we will pursue a formal meeting if we can. They are based offshore. They do not have a presence here but we have found that, again, continuing to have the discussion issuing our concerns as a government entity, just having those relationships helps. So if a problem arises, then we have established those relationships and we can try and work through to a solution.

Senator URQUHART: Fantastic. Have you issued any social media service notices under section 25 of the act in the reporting year of 2015-16 or 2016-17?

Ms Inman-Grant : No, we have not issued any formal requests under the act. We have not needed to, thankfully.

Senator URQUHART: That is good. Does this suggest that industry self-regulation is effective for addressing the issue? Is that how you would correlate that?

Ms Inman-Grant : I think industry self-regulation helps. I think what we are often seeing is there is just a huge volume of content, and with many bullying cases there is always context, so sometimes reports fall through the cracks. That is why we were established as a safety net, to help those Australian children and their parents sort through that and then raise these issues with the social media companies, particularly when we believe the content in question constitutes serious cyberbullying.

Senator URQUHART: How many staff at the office work on administrating the scheme for the removal of serious cyberbullying material?

Ms Inman-Grant : I believe we have six people on the team.

Senator URQUHART: What evidence do you have to indicate that adult Australians are not aware they can go to the commissioner for assistance with adult concerns around illegal or offensive online content, the sharing of images without consent or for general advice?

Ms Inman-Grant : While we are the Children's eSafety Commissioner, obviously a large vector of reaching children is through adults and we have an iParent portal to reach adults. We also have funding under a program called eSafety Women. We have reached many women, particularly those who are victims of domestic violence, and 1,700 frontline workers, those who support the victims of domestic violence. We also do a number of presentations to schools, to educators and teachers, and through our virtual classroom program we have reached 32,000 teachers and students.

Senator URQUHART: Great, so you do have adults actually coming to you. Do you think the title being the Children's eSafety Commissioner has a negative effect on adults' access to e-safety resources in Australia? Would it be better to be renamed?

Ms Inman-Grant : I think the office is looking forward to the opportunity to officially expand the remit by changing the name and making most of our services more broadly available for all Australians. We do help adults where we can, of course.

Senator URQUHART: Was it short-sighted to name the office Children's eSafety Commissioner when it is a much broader area?

Ms Inman-Grant : I was on the other side of the fence.

Senator Fifield: The establishment of the Office of the Children's eSafety Commissioner was the fulfilment of an election commitment in 2013, and the intent was to specifically address the issue of children's online safety. I think it was universally well received, but what has happened since that time is that the office has progressively been given additional responsibilities particularly in relation to women. It has also just naturally become a bit of a one-stop shop for e-safety issues more broadly, and that is why the government took the decision to rename it. We have introduced legislation to rename it so that the title reflects the expanded role, and also to make sure that we do have a solid legislative basis for those additional responsibilities which will continue to accrue to the office. I think it was well conceived as a children's e-safety office, but it has been an evolution and I think it has been a good evolution.

Senator URQUHART: Given that there is a bill to change the name, do you have any evidence to suggest that adults have been confused about the name? Is that the purpose of it?

Senator Fifield: I might start the answer, and the commissioner might add to it. The name change is, firstly, to reflect the expanded role, and I think it is appropriate that titles reflect the responsibilities that Commonwealth agencies have. Secondly, I think changing the name is designed to ensure that there is not confusion. Thirdly, I think it is just a commonsense thing to do.

Senator URQUHART: But my understanding is that the functions were held by ACMA previously, and, when that was held by ACMA, I am not aware that there was any confusion over the remit with respect to adults or children.

Senator Fifield: You are right. Some of the responsibilities that the commissioner has now were previously held by ACMA. No disrespect to ACMA, but I do not think the acronym 'ACMA' is necessarily top of mind for the community.

Senator URQUHART: Really! I find that hard to believe, Minister!

Senator Fifield: I know! So, while I guess they had a combined responsibility of sorts, it was not a high-profile office in the way that we wanted the Children's eSafety Commissioner to be and that we now want the eSafety Commissioner to be.

Senator URQUHART: Okay. If the bill is passed, how much will the rebranding exercise cost? Obviously, you will have to remove the word 'children' or have a new name or whatever—for example, things like office signage, stationery, business cards and the website.

Ms Inman-Grant : I will take that on notice. I do not think we have actually undertaken an exercise to cost out the branding and marketing of that. But with the name change, even with the expanded remit, we are not aware that there is any additional funding that will come with that, so we will work with the funding that we currently have to do the best job that we can to rebuild the brand, along with the website and marketing materials.

Senator URQUHART: So you will take that on notice and provide the details of that?

Ms Inman-Grant : We will.

Senator URQUHART: That would be great. Minister, I understand that the ACMA review is one of the reform projects awaiting finalisation in your portfolio. Can you assure me that there will not be any further name change to the Office of the eSafety Commissioner in the context of that review, if the government decides to fold these functions back into ACMA?

Senator Fifield: We will continue to have a statutorily created and established eSafety Commissioner office.

Senator URQUHART: Sorry? I did not hear the last part.

Senator Fifield: We will continue to have a statutorily created and established, dedicated eSafety Commissioner's office.

Senator URQUHART: Okay. Does the commissioner have plans to undertake community outreach to inform adult Australians of the availability of e-safety resources?

Ms Inman-Grant : Absolutely. Stakeholder engagement and community engagement and management, I believe, are critical steps not only to understanding what the issues are in each respective community, developing the right delivery vehicles and the right content, but also because we want to test this content with adults and other vulnerable Australian groups. I would call out particularly the seniors community, where we are doing that engagement right now in concert with the Department of Social Service as well as an extensive volunteer and NGO community that are already doing work in the seniors space.

Senator URQUHART: I will just put the volunteer and NGO community to one side. In terms of that outreach to inform people about the availability of the resources, do you have a costing for that? And exactly how will you do that?

Ms Inman-Grant : I can take that on notice in terms of the costing. I am currently working within the budget constraints and the staff constraints that we have right now. I am in the process of restructuring the office. I am going to include a more robust communications and marketing function so that we can look at those questions around getting the word out more effectively. That is one of my plans.

Senator URQUHART: I have a couple more questions about terrorism, then I will finish with this session.

CHAIR: That is fine. We have about five minutes. We are doing relatively well at the moment, timewise.

Senator URQUHART: Are you aware of recent reports that some of the world's biggest brands, through the use of so-called programmatic advertising, are unwittingly funding Islamic extremists, among other hate sites and pornographic sites, by advertising on their websites and YouTube videos and delivering funds based on the number of views?

Ms Inman-Grant : I am not aware of that issue.

Senator URQUHART: What, if anything—

CHAIR: I have heard about that as well. Commissioner, would you mind taking that on notice and perhaps coming back to us if you can find any information about that.

Ms Inman-Grant : I am happy to take that on notice, but I would like to ask some clarifying questions to make sure that we come back with the right information.

Senator URQUHART: Why don't I put a question on notice that outlines that, and that will give you the basis for that.

Ms Inman-Grant : That is fantastic because, obviously, that is a concern to us. To give you an example of what has happened on my watch, an individual took and posted a video of the more grotesque aspects of the Bourke Street massacre. When we were made aware of it, we called YouTube and we were able to effect a take-down. Obviously, when we see anything that incites violence, terrorism and should not be seen by the broader public, we work with our colleagues at the Attorney-General's Office or the law enforcement community. It is our job to do that, but that is something that we would keep a watch on and act on as appropriate.

Senator URQUHART: We will put that on notice so you have the details. Minister, are you aware of that?

Senator Fifield: I heard a media report—I think it might have been yesterday—on that, but I think the commissioner rightly points to the fact that some of those things would be appropriate for law enforcement and security agencies to deal with. I know that the commissioner's office does work closely with those agencies.

Senator URQUHART: Commissioner, you have some staff here in the room; I am not sure how many. Are any of them available to answer that in terms of their awareness of it?

Ms Inman-Grant : Maria or Stuart—do you have any knowledge of that from your end?

Ms Vassiliadis : My only awareness is the fact that it has been in the media.

Senator URQUHART: So that is the only understanding you have of it. What, if anything, is the office doing to prevent the Australian advertising and marketing industry from inadvertently funding terrorism through the use of so-called programmatic advertising, which delivers advertisements to online content and earns money for content owners based on the number of views of the advertisements?

CHAIR: I would ask the commissioner's or the minister's advice but, on that whole topic, given the commissioner's relative newness, would you prefer to take questions on that whole issue on notice?

Senator URQUHART: I am happy to put it on notice to get something further, but I would like a brief response.

Senator Fifield: I think there are two things here. One is social media organisations' obligations and just being good corporate citizens to make sure that there are not any inadvertent outworkings of their platforms that could be taken advantage of by those who are seeking to undertake illegal activities. That is the first point.

The second point is in terms of what action may be taken, and how it might be taken, in relation to those things. They are not necessarily things that would be helpful to canvass publicly. It may, to some extent, be appropriate to do so, but I think it is an area where advice would need to be taken from relevant security and intelligence agencies. I would make those two observations.

Senator URQUHART: I guess the reason is that it is a significant issue that has attracted attention around the world—Google, AdMedia et cetera. It is serious, and I would expect that the eSafety Commissioner would be aware of it. Following on from that, Commissioner, would you or the minister confirm that none of the agencies listed in your pack have been in touch to advise you about that?

Ms Inman-Grant : About this particular issue in the media yesterday?

Senator URQUHART: Yes.

Ms Inman-Grant : That is correct. When we take that question on notice, it will be a great opportunity for us to look at jurisdictional questions and working across government to ensure that we are all operating within our own patch and cooperatively.

Senator URQUHART: So there has been nothing from the Attorney-General's Department and nothing from the PM's special adviser on cybersecurity? No one has alerted you to this?

Ms Inman-Grant : Not to the development yesterday, but, again, based on my own experience—having worked in the social media area—I do know the social media companies are very focused on ridding their sites of that kind of content. They do not want any hateful content inciting terrorism on their sites either.

CHAIR: Just in relation to this issue: I think—

Senator Fifield: It is also important to note that this, from what we understand, is to a large extent a security issue as opposed to a cyberbullying issue. I would just make that point.

CHAIR: Minister, what I was going to suggest is that I think this issue will be of interest to all committee members and it is obviously going to be an ongoing issue, so Senator Urquhart will get to her questions, but I also ask you to expand that out and provide on notice a little bit more information about the current arrangements. However, given what the minister has said, Senator Urquhart, it may be more appropriate to do this in a closed briefing of the committee on how this relationship works. That might be another option as well.

Senator URQUHART: It may be, but I have a number of questions that I think—the eSafety Commissioner is a body that monitors most of—

CHAIR: No, what I am saying is we give the commissioner time to assess the information and how to answer your questions. If there are additional questions that relate to the issues the minister talked about, it may be more appropriate for some of that—in terms of the security aspects of it—to be addressed in camera.

Senator URQUHART: Yes, it would for some of it, but the development is older than yesterday; it is broader. Some of these issues were reported in The Australian in early February, so I would think that—

Ms Inman-Grant : I would say that we do have people on staff who sit on an intergovernmental committee on the prevention of or countering violent extremism. We are part of the government infrastructure that is consulting on this and looking at solutions. We have also received $1 million of funding to work on what we call a digital intelligence and digital resilience program targeted at young people to help them question and counter violent extremist messages. So we are doing work in this space.

Senator URQUHART: I have got one more question.

CHAIR: That is fine. We will go to quarter to one, because I have got a couple of questions as well.

Senator URQUHART: This is a question for both the minister and the commissioner. Who of the following have you been in contact with to help understand and investigate the extent of this problem in Australia: government ministers' departments, agencies, international bodies, platform operators including Google, and advertising and marketing industries? Can you outline who of those you have been in contact with in relation to that?

Senator Fifield: In relation to what?

Senator URQUHART: The extent of the problem that we have been talking about in Australia.

Senator Fifield: Of the issue of links with online platforms and advertisers?

Senator URQUHART: Yes.

Senator Fifield: I think we have gone as far with that in this forum as we can at this point.

Senator URQUHART: I will put that on notice, because I would like some more information around that.

CHAIR: That would be very interesting for all of the committee. I have just got a couple of quick questions. What we will do is go through to quarter to one and reduce lunch slightly so we can keep on time. Commissioner, my question relates to an inquiry that this committee's references committee did, and finished recently, into harm being done to Australian children through access to pornography on the internet. The committee's report stated that it found insufficient evidence of causality between access to online pornography and harm to children and young people, or not enough to warrant any immediate response. The Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia has written to the committee, to you and also to the minister. They quite clearly challenge that assertion and say that there are a lot of studies now that indicate that online pornography is a significant risk to children's online engagement. In fact, studies demonstrate that Australian children are most worried about that and also about cyberbullying. I am happy for you to take this on notice—I do not want to spring this one on you—and come back, because the committee would be interested to know whether there is any additional evidence and what your assessment is of the research on the impact of online pornography on children.

Ms Inman-Grant : I would love to provide you with additional information on notice. We will defer the policy questions to the department, as there is an interagency paper that is being table. We do have materials on our website, specifically on our iParent portal, for parents who want to protect their children from seeing inappropriate content unwittingly and to help them develop resilience. We try to provide very balanced guidance in terms of technology playing a role, but not an entire role, in addressing this issue. Early and constant engagement with children in their digital lives is very important in any aspect in terms of keeping them safe online.

CHAIR: I think you can assume that that is going to be an issue that we will be pursuing with you on a more regular basis through these committees. There are two other issues, in terms of cyberbullying and revenge porn, and I may get you to take these on notice. We will pick that up again at the next estimates. One issue in particular is that the government has announced that it will pursue civil penalties for non-consensual sharing of imaging, which people refer to as revenge porn. Do you or the department have any comments on the advantages of a civil penalties regime over a criminal penalties regime and the thinking behind that approach?

Ms Inman-Grant : I will defer to the department for a more detailed answer because they are looking at a civil penalties discussion paper. But I will just say, anecdotally and from the reports we have seen coming into our office, that sometimes all the victim wants is for the images to be removed and taken down. We want to provide all the services we can in terms of having a body to report to, helping to get their image removed and then referring them to the proper help, whether it is legal help or counselling help. Of course, we do not want the victims to be in a situation where they are revictimised through a criminal process.

Senator Fifield: I think it is important to recognise that it is already an offence under Commonwealth law to use a carriage service to menace, harass or be offensive. Under those provisions there have already been 691 charges against 397 defendants, and those numbers also include some in relation to revenge porn conduct. Feedback from victims and law enforcement agencies is that individuals who have been affected may often not want to go down the criminal path. We think it is important to have a range of options that can be pursued on behalf of victims. We do have some criminal penalties at the Commonwealth level, but establishing the civil penalties regime provides another avenue—

CHAIR: A wider suite of options.

Senator Fifield: that is right—that can be pursued. The department will shortly be issuing a discussion paper, and that consultation will help shape the framing of those penalties and the regime that will be in place.

CHAIR: I think it is safe to say, then, that we will look forward to the release of that paper and to pursuing it further with you. That is all the questions that I have.

Mr Eccles : I just want to clarify something Senator Bilyk asked. Just for the record, there are two things. In regard to the first, it was on 2 August 2016 that the chair of the Australia Council wrote to the minister seeking agreement to use their reserves. The second thing that we agreed to take on notice, but we can clarify, is that both the department and the Australia Council are comfortable that they have retained sufficient reserves for the purposes that reserves are used for.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for the prompt response to that question. On that note, the committee will now suspend for lunch.

Proceedings suspended from 12:45 to 13:30