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Fears online safety law could censor all adult content and force sex workers off internet

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“Fast-tracked” safety legislation regulating online content could censor all adult content online and force sex workers off the internet, sex workers and civil liberties groups have warned.

The online safety bill is aimed at giving powers to Australia’s eSafety commissioner to target bullying and harassment online, extending existing powers protecting children from online bullying to adults.

It increases the maximum penalty for using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence from three to five years in jail, and allows for the removal of image-based abuse and other harmful online content.

The legislation also enshrines powers for the eSafety commissioner to order the rapid blocking of sites hosting abhorrent violent and terrorist content to prevent them from being accessed in Australia.

But the proposals go beyond stopping online bullying and blocking extremist content. The bill carries over existing powers under the Broadcasting Services Act which allow for content with a rating of R18+ to be blocked or for removal notices to be issued, and goes much further by giving the eSafety commissioner sole discretion over whether the content is rated R18+ or over and therefore should be removed.

It has sparked fears of a Fosta Sesta-type act that would censor adult content online and force sex workers off social media under the guise of online safety.

A Melbourne- and Sydney-based sex worker, Christine McQueen, advertises her services in an online directory and promotes her work on social media. She told Guardian Australia the legislation was “scary” for sex workers and the government had not consulted enough with the sector.

If passed, she said, it would threaten her business: “How do I invest in tech if I don’t know if I will have a market to even post my content? I will basically be trading under a question mark of ‘will my services be cut any day?’”

A Sex Work Law Reform Victoria spokesperson, Roger Sorrenti, said the legislation’s effect would be “to effectively censor adult online content that could potentially have unintended consequences for the sex industry and porn industries and have a devastating impact on the ability of sex workers to earn a legitimate income”.

This would have a devastating impact on the industry, he said, given the shift to working online and using sites including OnlyFans during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“A lot of sex workers these days advertise their services and have an online presence on social media … this could really significantly impact their ability to attract clients to have an online presence, and to maintain their brand,” Sorrenti said.

Consultation for the draft legislation attracted more than 370 submissions between 23 December and 14 February, none of which the government published before the communications minister, Paul Fletcher, introduced the legislation into parliament 10 days later. The bill has been referred to a Senate committee, with submissions due on Tuesday.

“The government has decided to fast-track this bill despite repeated calls for caution by the industry and civil liberties organisations, as well as a parallel review currently occurring into Australia’s classification scheme,” said Eros Association’s policy and campaigns adviser, Jarryd Bartle.

The eSafety commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, told Guardian Australia she didn’t intend to use her powers under the legislation to go after consensual adult pornographic material online.

“My role as a regulator is to protect all Australians from online harm, it’s not to throttle the sex industry,” she said. “What happens between consenting adults is not my concern, as long as it’s not harming others.”

But she pointed out that hosting explicit adult sexual content is prohibited in Australia. Guardian Australia has also seen a notice sent by her office in January to adult websites requesting that content be removed for being R18+, X or refused classification.

Inman Grant’s office had not responded to questions about the removal requests by the time of publication.

Bartle said the eSafety commissioner would be bound to respond to complaints about adult content if the legislation proceeds as it is now written.

“Part 9 of the bill is not focused on online harms, it is specifically designed to censor what adult Australians can view on the internet,” he said. “There is no reason for it to exist.”

McQueen said she was concerned that people would abuse the complaints process to force the removal of adult content.

“It could be competitors, or people who are nasty or ex-boyfriends [or] someone who’s jealous of you,” she said. “It means that they can start fucking with your business. And that’s it.”

An Electronic Frontiers Australia board member and managing director of PivotNine, Justin Warren, said the most concerning part of the legislation was the “rapid accumulation of power” for the eSafety commissioner, with little oversight.

“There should be independent oversight, by the people who are being allegedly protected,” he said. “Where is the co-design? Where is the involvement of civil society groups, to make sure that this is done in a way that can’t be weaponised?”

A spokesperson for the communications minister said: “The material that could be removed under the proposed 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. This approach would not change under the new act.”

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