Labor members of the Committee share concerns about children and young people’s exposure to harmful online content and services.
We strongly support the objective of ensuring that Australians younger than 18 years should not have access to online wagering and pornography sites and acknowledge the harms that can flow if efforts are not made to prevent such access.
Labor has a strong track record when it comes to promoting online safety.
In 2008, the Labor Government delivered $125.8 million towards a cybersafety plan to combat online risks to children and help parents and educators protect children from inappropriate material and contacts while online. In 2010, the Labor Government established the Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety as part of its commitment to investigate and improve cyber-safety measures, releasing a report with 32 recommendations each of which was endorsed and responded to by the Labor Government.
Since 2013, Labor has supported Government eSafety and online wagering initiatives in Parliament and the Government has acknowledged the strong bipartisan support in this area. Further, Labor Senators supported the recommendations of the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee Inquiry into harm being done to Australian children through access to pornography on the internet (November 2016) and the Inquiry into gaming micro-transactions for chance-based items (‘loot boxes’) (November 2018).
Labor members of the Committee understand that we live in an era where many children have greater facility with technology than their parents and carers and that a holistic, multi-faceted and layered approach to protect children online, including safety-by-design, adult supervision, technological access-prevention measures and the education of children and adults, is of ongoing necessity.
Labor members of the Committee acknowledge that there is ‘no silver bullet’ for addressing online harm, that no control mechanism is 100 per cent effective and that age verification should not be seen as a panacea.
We appreciate that technological measures are designed to limit children and young people’s access to harmful online content but that technological interventions will never be able to completely eliminate the risk of children and young people being exposed to harmful content.
Labor members of the Committee support the implementation of age verification technology, as well as the legislative framework that would support it, subject to further research and review. This position is consistent with that of Australia’s eSafety Commissioner.
We note that in a 9 December 2019 blog, available on the website of the Office of the eSafety Commissioner, the eSafety Commissioner states that:
eSafety has supported the implementation of age verification technology, as well as the legislative framework that would support it – subject to further research and review. [emphasis added]
In its submission to the review, the eSafety Commissioner states that:
Should the Australian Government wish to progress on developing and implementing age verification solutions or regulations, eSafety would advise that a review should be undertaken first.
Labor members of the Committee accept that age verification requires further review, research and development in order to be implemented effectively as part of a multi-faceted and layered approach to online safety. Without adequate review and research, any new system may fail to win public trust and support and increase risks and unintended consequences around data security, trust, privacy and freedom of expression as well as fail to provide an effective measure for online access minimisation.
We note the Office of the eSafety Commissioner submission that:
Age verification is a nascent field, and if it is to be leveraged to protect children and young people from accessing online pornography, then we need to develop a supportive ecosystem, develop robust technical standards and requirements for this type of technology, and better understand the effectiveness and impact of age verification solutions in addressing this policy concern.
As highlighted in the inquiry’s terms of reference, it is also vital to identify and mitigate the risks associated with the use of age verification before it is rolled out.
We note the Communications Alliance submission that:
The failure of widespread and successful age verification systems to emerge … was further underlined in mid-October 2019, when the UK Government announced that its planned age verification regime, to prevent under-18s from accessing commercially offered online pornography, would not go ahead. The Government reported that the system, which was originally scheduled to commence in July 2019, had experienced numerous technical issues relating to its implementation.
Translating this objective [of ensuring that Australians younger than 18 years should not have access to online wagering and pornography sites] into a robust and practicable framework that also protects the privacy and cyber security of individual users of an age verification system is, however, a complex task that must be approached carefully and methodically.
Labor members of the Committee note that after years of work and millions of pounds expended on its proposal to introduce age verification for online pornography, the UK Government announced that it will not be proceeding. This is a recent cautionary tale that demonstrates how complicated it is to get age verification right.
We understand that the UK government estimates that approximately £2.2m (approximately $4.15m) was spent on the proposal to introduce age verification for online pornography; that the costs for implementation (not proceeding) were estimated at £4.45m (approximately $8.38m); and that the UK government requested that HM Treasury provide indemnity of up to £10m (approximately $18.84m) to protect the British Board of Film Classification against legal challenges in its first year of operation.
Labor members of the Committee acknowledge that the necessary review and research requires time, expertise and resources to properly examine the complex range of issues that age verification gives rise to, across data security, trust, privacy and freedom of expression.
We note that the necessary review and research would require adequate resourcing to be successful. Without adequate resourcing, any new system may fail to win public trust and support, fail to address the risk of unintended consequences, and fail to operate as an effective access prevention measure.
We further note that a range of relevant Government Departments and Agencies would need to be involved in the necessary review, research and policy development in order to strike the right balance between safety, security and privacy across online wagering and online pornography, including the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, the Australian Cyber Security Centre, the Australian Signals Directorate, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) and the eSafety Commissioner.
Labor members of the Committee note that the Terms of Reference to this Inquiry do not reference “loot boxes” and that key stakeholders (such as the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association (IGEA)) have not had the opportunity to provide written submissions or oral evidence to the inquiry, or respond to evidence, in relation to loot boxes. The Committee has not had the benefit of this exchange.
We note that the recent Senate inquiry into loot boxes didn’t recommend any further regulatory action, and that the Government’s response (March 2019) did not support the inquiry’s recommendation for further research or even a review of loot boxes, rather it merely noted these recommendations.
Labor members of the Committee note that any work on options to restrict access to elements of computer and video games should be done in consultation with industry and done with reference to the classification scheme. We note there is a current classification review process on foot and we consider the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications (the Classification branch) and the ACMA (the interactive gambling team) would also be well placed to conduct work around the restriction of loot boxes, which may require regulatory impact assessment.
Labor members of the Committee support further research and review to inform the development of a roadmap for the implementation of age verification for online wagering and online pornography to support the efficacy of this mechanism for protecting minors.
We regard further research and review as intrinsic to Recommendation 3, which recommends the development of a roadmap setting out a suitable legislative and regulatory framework; a program of consultation with community, industry and government stakeholders; activities for awareness raising and education for the public; and recommendations for complementary measures to ensure that age verification is part of a broader, holistic approach.
Labor members of the Committee consider that, given the time needed to inform and develop work for age verification for online wagering and pornography, it is imperative that work on other initiatives to strengthen online safety is done in tandem. To that end, we thank submitters for providing suggestions for other measures and initiatives to improve online safety.
We note that the Government has the benefit of a report of an expert working group, convened by the eSafety Commissioner and participated in by industry, which remains Cabinet-in-confidence. We encourage the Government to reclassify the report and make it public, so the broad range of stakeholders supportive of online safety may have the benefit of the work.
Ms Sharon Claydon MPDr Mike Freelander MP
Ms Peta Murphy MP