Sex workers in Canberra are concerned proposed laws will take down their online accounts and damage their livelihoods as the government pushes for tough new powers stamping out harmful web content.
The proposed online safety laws, first introduced to Parliament in late February, will expand the Office of the eSafety Commissioner's powers to curb online bullying, image-based abuse and the spread of extremist content.
Under the bill, the Commissioner could use new powers to take down sites deemed harmful, including those with graphic violence, bullying and extremist videos, with only 24 hours' notice.
The changes would also extend existing regulations against bullying beyond children to include adults.
However, the inclusion of R- and X-rated adult content under the proposed new laws has Australia's sex work industry worried.
National peak body for sex workers, Scarlet Alliance, has slammed the changes, concerned they will have broader negative consequences for people working in an already stigmatised industry.
The alliance's programs manager Gala Vanting said the proposed laws could threaten the safety of workers who have relied on the internet to attract customers during COVID-19. Incomes for sex workers could be reduced if advertising their services became more difficult.
"We think it's important for sex workers to be able to choose where and how they work," Ms Vanting said.
"For many sex workers online sex work is the best choice for their health, safety and rights, and we want them to be able to continue to choose that."
Ms Vanting said it was important that wording in the bill was adjusted to ensure the criteria for taking down content was clear, and that compensation was provided when website takedowns were found to be errors of judgment.
Sex workers worry incomes will be impacted
Canberra-based independent sex worker Sienna Charles is one of those who's worried the new laws could affect her livelihood.
She said the bill could mirror a controversial US law, known as Fosta Sesta. While it was aimed at stamping out sex trafficking, it resulted in scores of sex workers being struck from online platforms and resorting to less safe avenues to find work.
Ms Charles said the government's bill was too vague and could have similar implications.
"It's another way of de-platforming us and another way of making it less safe," she said.
"When you take away our advertising platforms, you take away our choice over how we work."
Instead, Ms Charles hoped the government would turn its mind to adjusting the bill's wording to prevent it from covering adult content and sex work.
"The internet has been a really incredible boon to sex workers with regard to taking charge of our own advertising, of our own spaces," Ms Charles said.
"All we want from the government is to decriminalise sex work and to stop restricting our online spaces."
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher, who introduced the bill, said the criticism was all a misunderstanding.
He said the new bill would simply give the office stronger powers to do what it already had been doing before.
"Suggestions the new Online Safety Bill will turn eSafety into an 'internet filter' or 'force sex workers out of business' reveal a misunderstanding of the law as it currently stands, and the changes proposed in the new bill," a spokesperson for Minister Fletcher told Canberra Times.
"The material that could be removed under the Online Safety Bill is consistent with the current Online Content Scheme. Nothing, in this regard, has changed.
"The approach of eSafety has always been to prioritise content depicting child sexual abuse and exploitation, as well as material that incites, instructs or promotes terrorism or violent extremism."
Part of the reasoning behind the bill stems from the rapid dissemination of footage containing violent and graphic attacks and limitations authorities have with removing them.
In 2019, an Australian man livestreamed a terrorist attack he committed on a New Zealand mosque, where he murdered 51 people and injured 40 others.
The footage, which was livestreamed on Facebook, was later distributed across a number social media pages and websites who worked to take down millions of uploads and shares.
The race to push the Online Safety Bill through Parliament
First opening for consultation days before Christmas in 2020, the bill received more than 370 submissions from the public.
Last Thursday, it was referred to a parliamentary committee and opened up to another round of submissions for three business days. The committee will deliver its report by next Thursday, two weeks after its referral.
The short span of the committee's reporting period has made some concerned the bill is being rushed into law.
Canberra community health group Meridian urged the government to delay the process with chief executive Philippa Moss adding it needed the time to listen to the voices who would be most affected by the bill's passing.
"I think they need to take the time to do the due diligence around really looking at the ramifications for a large cohort of people," Ms Moss said.
"[In] this narrow window of time ... they can't say they've done adequate consultation and community engagement."
Sex workers say they just want their safety considered too
Sex workers and advocacy groups said they just want to be heard and have their concerns addressed by politicians.
Broadening oversight and outlining the powers the Commissioner could use would be a first good step toward easing the anxiety sex workers are feeling, Ms Charles said.
Both Ms Charles and Ms Vanting said few Australians would be comfortable with a single unelected official having the power to take down sites with little recourse.
"We'd like to see a narrowing of those powers and we'd also like to see a decentralisation of power [because] we think that the commissioner has far too much power in the draft bill," Ms Vanting said.
"If you don't have strict criteria about what you're removing and why, [the eSafety Commissioner] can just do whatever it wants," Ms Charles added.
She said while she understood the need for protecting children's' safety online, she felt it shouldn't come at the cost of Australian sex workers.
"We don't want kids to see our content, but I feel like their safety and our safety can exist online at the same time," Ms Charles said.
"You do not have to sacrifice one for the other."
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