COMMITTEES;Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee;Report – 25 Feb 2016

I too rise to speak on the revenge porn inquiry report, and I rise tonight to make a few comments regarding the inquiry and the recommendations in the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee’s report into the phenomenon colloquially known as revenge porn. This is a serious issue, and it is of grave concern to many Australians today. I was pleased on 11 November 2015 to have moved in my name the motion to refer this inquiry to the committee. The phenomenon involves sharing private sexual images and recordings of a person, without their consent, with the intention to cause that person harm. The committee inquired into this phenomenon as well as the potential policy and parliamentary responses to the issue.

Before I continue my remarks, there was concern by a number of the witnesses, particularly victim support services, that the phrase ‘revenge porn’ is too narrow, suggesting a particular type of behaviour as opposed to the range of behaviours and circumstances that involve the non-consensual dissemination of intimate images. The use of ‘revenge’ implies that a perpetrator’s motive is restricted to that end, while the use of ‘porn’ focuses on perceived actions by the victim. Consequently, the committee recommends that Australian governments use the phrase ‘non-consensual sharing of intimate images’ or similar when referring to the phenomenon colloquially known as revenge porn in legislation and formal documentation. I will be using this language in the rest of my comments today.

While non-consensual sharing of intimate images can affect both sexes, in the majority of cases women are the victims. While there are some that may disregard just how serious this issue is, it is extremely important for us to understand what the ramifications of these actions can be. During a relationship, a perpetrator might use sexual images or films as a tool to control their partner. The threat of it being sent to others might be enough to keep someone in an abusive relationship or control their behaviour within that relationship. It has become the most extreme example of how some men are using new technologies to exercise power and control over the women in their lives. Unfortunately, it is an increasingly common manifestation of family violence.

The distribution of private sexual images without consent can take many forms. These images can be sent to people’s friends, colleagues or family, causing serious and often ongoing harm to their career, reputation and mental health. Sometimes images are uploaded onto websites dedicated to non-consensual sharing of intimate images, which contain hundreds of sexual images of women that have been uploaded without their consent—a violation recently experienced by hundreds of women in South Australia who had their private images shared online without their consent. The Victim Support Service, VSS, emphasised that, wherever it occurs:

… it is clear that revenge porn is used as a tool of power and control. In one case, intimate images of a woman were shared on Facebook explicitly with the intention to punish her for ending the relationship. In a second example, revenge porn was used in an ongoing relationship to coerce and control the victim.

The committee heard harrowing tales, as Senator Lazarus mentioned, about how this phenomenon ruins women’s lives. Victims’ contact details can also be published on these websites, leading to victims being further harassed with sexual and abusive messages from strangers that they have never encountered. The results are catastrophic and can ruin their lives. Some women who have been subjected to non-consensual sharing of intimate images suffer from depression and anxiety, and some have even committed suicide after falling victim to this form of abuse. The humiliation from having sexual images or films shared publically can prevent people from reporting rape or abuse, or from seeking the help that they need to assist them to recover from sexual abuse.

Given the serious impacts on victims of this phenomenon, the committee recommended that the Commonwealth government legislate, to the extent of its constitutional power and in conjunction with state and territory legislation, offences for: knowingly or recklessly recording an intimate image without consent; knowingly or recklessly sharing intimate images without consent; and threatening to take and/or share intimate images without consent, irrespective of whether or not those images exist. The committee is also recommending that the states and territories enact legislation with offences the same or substantially similar to those I have just detailed, taking into account relevant offences enacted by the Commonwealth government, to ensure unified and uniform criminal approaches to non-consensual sharing of intimate images across Australia.

Perpetrators of non-consensual sharing of intimate images should face the same consequences no matter what state or territory the offence occurs in. While victims and the broader society want perpetrators to face punishment, victims also need to have means for content to be removed from the internet quickly so it cannot be viewed or shared further. We all know that it only takes a second or two for things to be spread on the internet. The committee recommends that the Commonwealth government consider empowering a Commonwealth agency to issue take down notices for non-consensually shared intimate images. The committee also recommends, if not already in existence, that the Commonwealth government establish a formal mechanism by which Commonwealth agencies and internet and social media providers regularly engage on issues relating to non-consensual sharing of intimate images.

As I said earlier, this is an emerging issue. Technological advancement and its widespread dissemination means that the sharing of non-consensually shared intimate images is easier than it has ever been, and many people born on the wrong side of the digital divide still do not have a full understanding of the potential for harm that non-consensually shared intimate images can cause. Consequently, the committee recommends that the Commonwealth government implement a public education and awareness campaign about non-consensual sharing of intimate images for adults by empowering and resourcing the Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner and the Australian Federal Police to build on their existing work with children in relation to cybersafety.

The committee also heard evidence from victims support groups which indicated that in states where some attempts at criminalising non-consensual sharing of intimate images has occurred there have been cases where these laws have not been applied. The Victim Support Service told the committee:

… we gave two case studies where both victims reported to the police, and in neither case were any charges laid against the offender. In one case the police unofficially warned off the offender from doing the behaviour, but none of the legislation that potentially could have been used was used in either of those cases.

Consequently, the committee recommends that that all Australian police undertake, at a minimum, basic training in relation to non-consensual sharing of intimate images and in particular any new offences in the relevant jurisdiction.

A number of submitters and witnesses advocated for a tort of privacy. The committee notes the creation of such a tort was recommended by the Australian Law Reform Commission in 2014. While the Attorney-General’s Department advised the committee that the Commonwealth government is not supportive of the establishment of a tort of privacy, the committee notes the AFP and CDPP’s comments in support of such. Therefore, the committee recommends that the Commonwealth government give further consideration to a statutory cause of action for serious invasions of privacy.

Before I conclude my remarks, I would like to thank all the witnesses and submitters. I would like to thank the victim support services, and victims, in particular, who provided examples to highlight to the committee the devastating experience of being the victim of ‘non-consensual sharing of intimate images’.

I would also like to thank the secretariat, who did such a wonderful job compiling this report and organising the hearings, especially given the tight time frame around this inquiry. Once again, your work is of the highest quality and you are a credit to this parliament.

I would like to also particularly thank my colleagues in the House Mr Tim Watts and Ms Terri Butler for the work they have done to bring this issue to the parliament’s attention through their private member’s bill. It is now 2016, and Australia has well and truly moved into the digital age. It is up to this place to ensure that Australia’s laws protect Australian citizens from harm, but, on this issue so far, this parliament has failed.

It is time for this parliament to take action on this issue. I call upon the government to take immediate action on this issue, and to take up the recommendations of the committee to protect and provide justice to the many thousands of people who have already been victims of these acts, and to prevent tens of thousands more people becoming victims.

I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.