Children and young people are increasingly growing up in an online world.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2016-17, 97 per cent of Australian households with children under 15 years of age had access to the internet, and the highest proportion of internet users of any age group was among people aged 15 to 17.
The internet has brought about new opportunities for children and young people to learn, play and connect with friends and family. However, while taking advantage of these new opportunities, it is also important that children and young people are protected online.
This includes ensuring that age restrictions that apply to content or services offline in the physical world are also applied in the online world.
This inquiry considered the potential role for age-verification technology in protecting children and young people in Australia from exposure to online wagering and online pornography.
In December 2015, the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee adopted an inquiry into harm being done to Australian children through access to pornography on the internet. The inquiry lapsed at the dissolution of the Parliament in May 2016, and was adopted again in September 2016.
The Committee presented its report in November 2016, making four recommendations. These recommendations included that the Australian Government commission dedicated research into the exposure of Australian children and young people to online pornography, and that, following this research, the Government commission an expert panel to make recommendations regarding possible policy measures.
The Government response to the report was published in April 2017.
The response stated that the Government had commissioned the Australian Institute of Family Studies to review evidence on the effects of pornography on children and young people. The review was subsequently published in December 2017. Key messages included that pornography use can shape sexual practices and is associated with unsafe sexual health practices, and that pornography may strengthen attitudes supportive of sexual violence and violence against women.
The response also stated that the Government would ask the Online Safety Consultative Working Group, chaired by the eSafety Commissioner, to consider the issue and report back to Government on strategies to inform an effective policy response. The group made recommendations to Cabinet in December 2017.
The current inquiry
The Minister for Families and Social Services, Senator the Hon. Anne Ruston, and the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, the Hon. Paul Fletcher MP, wrote to the Committee requesting that it inquire into and report on age verification for online wagering and online pornography.
On 10 September 2019, the Committee adopted the terms of reference referred by the Ministers. The full terms of reference are provided in the front pages of this report.
Conduct of the inquiry
The inquiry was advertised on 11 September 2019. Submissions were invited from a range of government, industry and community organisations and from other relevant stakeholders, and opened to the public.
On 11 September 2019 the Committee published a statement outlining principles for its treatment of evidence received by the inquiry. The statement is included at Appendix A.
The Committee received 325 submissions and two supplementary submissions, which are listed at Appendix B. The Committee also received four exhibits, which are listed at Appendix C.
Submissions to the inquiry included a significant number of contributions from groups of individuals or campaigns, including:
219 contributions received via eChildhood;
87 identical and 50 similar contributions based on a form letter;
30 identical and 36 similar contributions based on another form letter;
2236 contributions received via the online advocacy organisation OneClickPolitics; and
707 short contributions in similar terms.
Consistent with the approach taken by other Parliamentary Committees, one example of each form letter was accepted as a submission and published on the inquiry web page. Where multiple submissions were sent to the Committee as a group or contained similar text, these were published as a compilation.
The Committee heard from witnesses at two public hearings in Canberra on 5 and 6 December 2019. Witnesses are listed at Appendix D.
The Committee also notes that it received some submissions addressing the issue of age verification for online alcohol sales. While this was outside the scope of the inquiry, the Committee carefully considered the matters raised in these submissions.
The Committee acknowledges the strong community interest in the inquiry and expresses its appreciation to the individuals and organisations that contributed evidence and shared their views with the Committee.
Structure of the report
Chapter 2 summarises evidence received on the attributes of an effective online age-verification model, and then reviews the current state-of-the-art methods for age verification.
Chapter 3 considers evidence on children and young people’s exposure to online pornography. The chapter then considers how online pornography is currently regulated in Australia, approaches in other jurisdictions, and the possible implementation of a mandatory regime for age verification for online pornography in Australia.
Chapter 4 considers evidence on online wagering by children and young people. The chapter then examines Australia’s current verification process for access to online wagering, the planned review of this process, approaches in other jurisdictions, and other possible measures.