ADJOURNMENT;Internet Content – 16 Mar 2010

Before I start my speech I would like to refer to the speech made earlier tonight by Senator Bushby. I think that speech resorted to the complete depths of grubbiness that one would expect from the opposition in an election time. He was referring to the election in Tasmania on Saturday. Bringing up the personal life of a previous member of the Tasmanian government just shows what lack of moral fortitude those on the other side have. I will not give his disgusting comments any more oxygen. I will now speak on something that is of great importance to our community—that is, cybersafety.

No-one can dispute that the emergence of the internet has been one of the great developments of our time. The opportunities it provides for communication on a global scale, the provision of information and entertainment and the delivery of services to the community are incredible. In recent times, the internet has undergone a rapid shift from being a relatively passive environment, where information is provided, to an interactive user experience. The gaming environment was one of the first examples of this trend but has in many ways been surpassed by the emergence of the social networking phenomenon. What do the statistics tell us about the interaction of young Australians with the internet? Firstly, over 90 per cent of teens and young adults use the internet, 74 per cent of them use instant messaging, 62 per cent use chat rooms and 64 per cent have a social network site such as Facebook or MySpace.

There are, of course, many benefits for our children arising from their internet use. These include increased opportunities for the development of communication and socialisation skills in addition to the more traditional advantages such as access to information and learning opportunities. However, the point has been reached where the interaction between our kids and the internet can be seen to have resulted in the development of negative outcomes. These outcomes clearly require intervention by government in cooperation with the broader community. Both adults and children use the internet, and although recent suggestions of a digital divide have been disputed it is the case that they utilise the online environment for different purposes. Studies by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, ACMA, have shown that those aged 35 and older tend to have a relationship with the internet which could be described as transactions based—that is, the internet is used as an object or device which provides the opportunity to undertake specific actions. Online banking, travel and entertainment bookings and the utilisation of the internet as a source of information about the news and weather are illustrations of these types of activities. These studies also reveal that younger users are more likely to use the internet as a means of communication and connection.

Social networking is the most pervasive example of this feature, with interactive gaming providing another illustration. For young people, cyberspace is a real place where self-identity and relationships are formed. Social networking, or social media as it is also called, is characterised by its high level of accessibility. There are usually minimal financial costs and it is possible for an individual who has a relatively low level of skills to participate in the information and communications environment. It is this ease of access which potentially increases the vulnerability of younger users of the internet. As the third annual report of ACMA to the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Stephen Conroy, makes clear, the disclosure of personal information is fundamental to the social networking business model.

I draw the attention of the Senate tonight to two of the negative practices which have arisen in cyberspace. I refer specifically to cyberbullying and online grooming. Cyberbullying involves the use of information and communication technologies to support deliberate repeated and hostile behaviour by an individual or group that is intended to harm others. It can be committed using the internet, digital, gaming or mobile technologies. This kind of bullying can cause great distress and have an adverse impact on a child’s self-esteem and confidence. It also reaches beyond the traditional safe barriers of the home and classroom environments creating even greater stress and anxiety for victims. Cyberbullying can take many forms including what is called flaming, online fights using electronic messages with angry and vulgar messages; harassment, repeatedly sending offensive, rude and insulting messages by text, instant messaging or email; cyberstalking, repeatedly sending messages that are threatening or intimidatory; impersonation, pretending to be someone else and sending or posting material online that damages that person’s reputation or friendships; outing and trickery, sharing someone’s secret or embarrassing information online; and exclusion, intentionally excluding someone from an online group such as a buddy list. Cyberbullying is insidious. It crosses over traditional protective boundaries such as the home and school environments. It can occur at any time of the day or night and the perpetrators most often remain anonymous. One of the most frightening features of these activities is that the bully does not always see the effect upon their target, which may cause the intensity of the activity to be even higher as any opportunity for empathy or compassion is removed.

The practice of online grooming refers to the deliberate actions taken by an adult to form a trusting relationship with a child with the intention of facilitating sexual contact. A truly frightening statistic which has been widely reported suggests that up to 20 per cent of all children who interact in the online environment will be targeted by an online predator or paedophile each year. It is clear that these disturbed individuals view the internet as providing a perfect vehicle for grooming children and young adults. Grooming can take place via chat rooms, instant messaging, social networking sites and emails and the anonymity of the internet makes it easier for child sex offenders to pretend to be someone else, often another young person.

In addition to these practices, a major area of concern is online content that may be inappropriate or harmful to children. Examples include child abuse images, pornography, nudity, violence and illegal activity. The government has proposed internet filtering legislation as one response to the growth and accessibility of these materials online. Proposals have been developed recently to counter the negative features of the online experience and its potential effect upon our children. It is pleasing to note that the Rudd Labor government has recently delivered on its 2007 election commitment to establish a joint parliamentary committee on cybersafety. This bipartisan committee will commence its work shortly with a report due by February 2011. This is an extremely significant development that will clearly raise awareness of the issue. It affords the issue of cybersafety the status it requires for any policy proposals to carry weight. As a bipartisan joint parliamentary committee, it sends a strong signal to the Australian community that these issues are considered to be above the normal political fray. The establishment of the joint parliamentary committee joins other Labor 2007 election commitments, including the establishment of youth advisory and consultative working groups to provide advice to government on policies to protect children from the negative impacts of the online environment. In particular, the establishment of a youth advisory group illustrates the importance that the Rudd Labor government places upon directly engaging with young people to address cybersafety related issues. The YAG will also be involved in a major cybersafety pilot.

As co-convenor of Parliamentarians Against Childhood Abuse and Neglect, or PACAN, I was privileged recently to host a meeting that was addressed by the chairman of the Alannah and Madeline Foundation, John Bertrand AM. The Alannah and Madeline Foundation was, as senators will be aware, established to undertake and support work which seeks to protect children from all forms of violence—including abuse—and the impact it has upon their lives. The name honours the memory of Alannah and Madeline Mikac, who, at the age of six and three respectively, were among those who lost their lives to violence on the day of the Port Arthur massacre in my home state of Tasmania in 1996.

The Alannah and Madeline Foundation has developed a cybersafety and wellbeing initiative named eSmart, which has as its clear objective the creation of a generation of children and young people who are smart, safe and responsible users and consumers of communications technology. The eSmart campaign is modelled on the highly successful SunSmart campaign, which has fundamentally changed not only public awareness regarding the danger of exposure to the sun but social behaviour— (Time expired)