Senator HENDERSON (Victoria) (21:55): In my capacity as shadow minister for communications, I have been very proud to speak about the incredible work of the previous coalition government in protecting the online safety of all Australians. We have a very, very proud record. When we were in government we passed the Online Safety Act and established the world’s first eSafety Commissioner. We forced social media companies to remove cyberbullying, cyberabuse and image based abuse. We stood up for children who had been bullied online. As we know, some of those cases resulted in absolute tragedy. We led global action to make social media accounts more accountable over terrorist and violent content online. We committed to introducing new laws to unmask anonymous trolls, which, very regrettably, were opposed by Labor. We implemented the news media bargaining code to force the big-tech platforms to pay for Australian media content—another world-leading reform. Following the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data-harvesting scandal, and in recognition of the new challenges to the protection of individuals’ privacy in the individual age, in 2019 the coalition committed to strengthening privacy protections by introducing a binding code of practice for social media and other online platforms. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission July 2019 report Digital platforms inquiry reinforced the importance of the then government’s commitment to developing a privacy code for digital platforms and to enhancing penalties and enforcement measures. Prior to the election we announced the coalition’s Privacy Legislation Amendment (Enhancing Online Privacy and Other Measures) Bill 2021, the online privacy bill, which proposed that social media and other online platforms would be required to take all reasonable steps to verify their users’ age and to consider the best interest of the child when handling the personal information of children, including obtaining parental consent for users under the age of 16. It also provided that there would be fully informed consent in relation to the use of personal information and that social media platforms would be required to cease using or disclosing personal information upon request. We put Australians front and centre in that bill. The bill also proposed tougher penalties and enforcement powers, including penalties of up to $10 million for companies which engaged in serious and repeated interferences with privacy.
It is very regrettable that we have seen very little from Labor on online safety and online privacy. In fact, the Labor Minister for Communications, Ms Rowland, has barely mentioned online safety. The Albanese government is to be condemned for its failure to strengthen online privacy and data protection laws. The shadow AttorneyGeneral, Julian Leeser, and I called for the Albanese government to adopt the coalition’s online privacy bill back in July, and we have heard nothing but silence. Today, I was pleased to join Senator Paterson, the shadow minister for cybersecurity and for countering foreign interference, along with Mr Leeser in calling on the Albanese government to take action.
We have revealed today that a WeChat account owner has been asked to transfer their data to WeChat servers on China’s mainland. This account owner received a notice requesting authorisation to enable WeChat services which would result in personal information, likes, comments, views, search queries and the like being uploaded by WeChat servers in China’s mainland for the sole purpose of providing this particular service. So we have very real concerns and increasing concerns about online safety, online privacy and online security. These issues are extremely concerning.
In fact in July Senator Paterson also wrote to the Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Cyber Security, urging the government to consider all options to protect Australian users on high-risk platforms like TikTok. The Minister for Home Affairs has announced a review into data security issues including data harvesting involving TikTok, WeChat and other digital platforms, but where is the government on taking immediate action to enhance the privacy of Australians online? The communications minister said nothing about this; she has completely vacated the field. While all regulatory options must be on the table, as the opposition has made clear, there are vital improvements to online privacy which can and must be enacted immediately. We respect the fact that the Home Affairs department is conducting its review. We are concerned that this is going to take such a long time and there will be no outcome of the review until early next year, but there is a tranche of legislation ready to go.
The privacy and safety of Australians online is critical. We know there will apps like TikTok which are data harvesting, tracking young Australians and capturing a whole lot of information which is in fact not necessary for the app to function as it should. At the very least, we should be seeing action from the Albanese government in relation to children, so one of the provisions of the coalition’s online privacy bill was to require parental consent for any person under the age of 16 who signs up to an app. This is all about putting the best interests of children first. This bill also provided for very tough penalties of up to $10 million. I say to the Albanese government: please have a look at this bill, please consider that this is a critical issue. This is a rapidly changing landscape, and it’s incredibly disappointing that we have seen no action from the government in relation to this very, very important issue.
It is, regrettably, consistent with a lack of action we’ve seen on a number of other fronts in the communications portfolio, including on regional connectivity. Before the election, through a fabulous program, the Regional Connectivity Program, a proud coalition program, we announced 93 projects, spending $140 million to invest in improved regional connectivity in rural and regional communities around this country. We have been waiting more than three months and we have seen no action from the minister apart from saying in an interview with The Guardian that she intends to deliver the Regional Connectivity Program, but it was only after I called her to account that she confirmed that round 2 would be delivered. We do not know whether these 93 projects have been confirmed by the government. Nothing has been said. Nothing has been done. These projects are sitting there on ice.
Unfortunately there are is a very similar story with the Peri-Urban Mobile Program. It was only after pressure imposed by great local members like the member for Casey when I visited him and talked about the Peri-Urban Mobile Program that the government announced it would commit $28.2 million to that program. But Labor went to the election with a $155 million cut to regional communications, $155 million less than the coalition’s commitment. There’s $140 million sitting in the budget. Projects have been announced and yet we’ve seen no action. So whether it’s on regional connectivity, whether it’s on privacy, whether it’s on online safety and whether it’s caring for our kids we need to see immediate action from this government.