eSafety grilled on WA Police’s lack of awareness of its new withdrawal powers

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Image: Asha Barbaschow/ZDNet

Australia’s Electronic Safety Commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, was quizzed by senators on Tuesday morning on the effectiveness of the recently enacted Online Safety Act, which expanded the Commissioner’s opt-out powers to cover more content from cyberbullying – including those targeting adults – intimate images of someone that has been shared without their consent, heinous violent material and restricted content.

The grills came in response to a letter written by Western Australian Police Minister Paul Papalia to Federal Communications Minister Paul Fletcher calling for the powers of the Online Safety Act to be used more quickly.

Papalia wrote the letter after a TikTok video emerged online of a stolen vehicle occupied by 11- and 12-year-old boys and a 13-year-old girl, ramming a police cruiser into a tree in Broome, injuring two officers . The video was posted by the kids shortly before they crashed the vehicle.

Explaining the consequences, Inman Grant said his agency was unaware of TikTok’s content until Papalia’s letter was published by a media Sunday evening. After seeing the letter, the eSafety Commissioner said her agency had contacted WA Police, Snapchat and TikTok to verify what action was being taken.

Prior to the eSafety Commissioner’s office contacting WA Police, however, the police department had not made any contact with the Commissioner about the incident. WA Police have yet to file a complaint with the agency either.

Asked about the various ways WA Police can work with the eSafety Commissioner to exercise the latter’s powers, Inman Grant admitted that a memorandum of understanding with WA Police covering new safety law capabilities online was not yet in place.

Inman Grant noted, however, that a memorandum of understanding is not required for law enforcement to report harmful content to its agency.

She also said her agency recently hired new law enforcement liaison staff who would be tasked specifically with updating its memorandums of understanding with federal and state law enforcement agencies.

“[MoUs] help guide, but if a police department came to us for removal help, we wouldn’t need a memorandum of understanding to do that,” Inman Grant said.

Superannuation, Financial Services and Digital Economy Minister Jane Hume, who appeared alongside Inman Grant before the Senate Estimates, then blamed the fact that the Online Safety Act was not enforced for this incident at Papalia’s feet, saying he was “fully aware it was a cybercrime long in advance, so he could have pressed charges”.

In response to the revelation, Labor Senator Louise Pratt criticized the eSafety Commissioner’s job of advising on how to use the Online Safety Act’s opt-out powers due to the agency’s media campaign focused on so far on the eSafety website update.

“If the creative is ready, surely they should be spending it here and now rather than saving the expense of that creative. Frankly, when prices go up because there’s more competition for a media buy during an election campaign “, said Pratt.

At the time of writing this article, the homepage of the eSafety website did not have a direct link to the Report Harmful Content page. At the same time, on online search engines, results from the eSafety website contained a sub-result displaying the report page.

The eSafety Commissioner did not respond directly to Pratt’s criticism, saying: “We have been the eSafety regulators since 2015. Not every citizen or organization may know us; we are doing everything we can to ensure that as much many people know and we will continue to do so. I’m not sure what more I can say.

“I think it’s like any public health campaign. Behavior change really takes a long time,” she said.

Providing an update on the powers of the Online Safety Act since it came into effect three weeks ago, Inman Grant said his agency had dealt with more than 200 complaints from Australian adults experiencing abuse and harassment in line.

Representing an 85% increase from the same period a year ago, these complaints focused on explicit instructions and incitement to suicide, threats of murder and the threatening posting of personal data online.

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