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Proposed online safety act perpetuates our Government's problem with women

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Communications Minister Paul Fletcher wants to increase the Government's power over online content sharing (Screenshot via YouTube)

A proposed bill to improve online safety would place more power in the Government's hands and potentially increase sexual violence against women, writes Andrew P Street.

YOU COULD BE FORGIVEN for missing the news, buried as it was under the multiple rape scandals engulfing the Morrison Government, but a piece of very women-unfriendly legislation was recently shovelled through a mightily truncated consultation process by Communications Minister Paul Fletcher.

The proposed Online Safety Bill, which among other things seeks to fine sites over half a million dollars if they fail to remove ‘serious abusive material within 24 hours’, was announced last year and then given a suspiciously short ten-day consultation period, during which Fletcher reportedly received over 300 submissions of which zero are being released by the Department.

But as ever, the devil is in the frustratingly vague details. And it’s important to note that eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant has reassured lawmakers that only abusive material will be targeted and that she has no interest in pursuing adult material. But the law itself doesn’t make much of a distinction and it’s hard to imagine, say, Reddit deciding to risk millions on setting courtroom precedents on what constitutes abuse when it would be cheaper just to blanket ban everything remotely smutty.

Peak adult body the Eros Association have made their submission public and frankly, they are terrified.

General manager Rachel Payne wrote:

‘As drafted, the online content scheme would provide for the removal of many forms of adult content impacting the livelihood of producers, sex workers, adult retailers and adult entertainment venues.’

And the Morrison Government has form for not worrying too much about unintended consequences with that complicated online stuff.

For example, there’s the 2018 encryption-busting legislation which was all about chasing child abusers and terrorists and which involved forcing access to people’s personal files. This was despite the U.S. Government’s National Security Agency doing a similar thing in 2017, which was then promptly hacked by criminals and weaponised into the Wannacry ransomware.

At least that was illegal. In Australia, pornography and (in most places) sex work is not, but it’s unlikely that this Government will be fighting to protect such workers from being swept up in the crusade against online predators.

There are reasons for concern about privacy due to the seemingly deliberate vagueness of the wording around ‘the objective of protecting children from exposure to material that is unsuitable for children’ — which could mean anything from uploading identification documents up to facial recognition scans.

And if that sounds alarmist, be aware that Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has been agitating to implement facial recognition tech since 2019 and this could be the way he, ahem, gets it through the back door.

So yes, there are privacy issues and questions about government overreach. However, this isn't merely an issue of curtailing the masturbatory habits of our proud citizenry. This well-meaning law might also get women killed.

Why? Because a similar suite of laws was introduced in 2018 by the Trump Administration in the United States and has been utterly devastating for workers in the U.S. sex industry.

Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) were ostensibly designed to stop child porn and sex trafficking – laudable aims both – but the legislation was criticised for seeming to be more about removing sexually explicit material on the internet, from escort ads to erotic art, than actually keeping people safe.

And so it proved — thanks in part to the very broad definition of what exactly constituted sex work ISPs and websites scrubbed all adult content, lest they be held legally accountable for things posted by users.

Sex workers who had been able to use the internet to find and vet clients safely were forced off social media and services like Craigslist and Backpage (and, for that matter, the largely innocent image sharing site Tumblr), forcing some back to using pimps and others to work in unsafe situations. And this has affected people outside of the U.S. too — for example, legal sex workers in Australia cannot promote themselves openly on a site like OnlyFans as it's a U.S.-based site.

Rather than stopping exploitation, losing personal ads and online services has reportedly made it far harder for the police to locate sex traffickers — and, most important of all, it made it all but impossible for workers to share information about potentially dangerous clients. Exactly as predicted, there have been anecdotal reports of an increase in murders and disappearances of sex workers in the U.S. following the passage of the laws.

Still, you have to hand it to the Morrison Government. Attempting to pass a problematic law that will potentially increase sexual violence against women under the cover of allegations about inadequately responding to sexual violence against women is, if nothing else, impressively consistent.

Andrew P Street is an Adelaide-based, Sydney-built journalist, columnist, author, editor and broadcaster. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewPStreet.

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