“We do not have, at the moment, legal powers when a complaint is made to the e-Safety Commissioner by an adult who has been the subject of vicious online abuse,” Mr Fletcher said.
He said the proposed legislation would capture abuse constituting “serious harm”, such as threats to rape and kill and racist attacks, providing the abuse was targeted towards particular adults rather than generalised abuse.
The bill will set a higher legal test for what constitutes abuse directed at adults compared with children.
“That’s because first of all adults are more resilient than children, but secondly we need to strike the right balance with freedom of speech,” Mr Fletcher said.
He said the scheme would provide adults with a more immediate recourse than what might be achieved by going to the police.
“Overwhelmingly, when people are the victim of this kind of abuse what they want most of all is to have the material taken down as quickly as possible,” Mr Fletcher said. “Obviously if the abuse reaches a criminal standard then potentially [the police] are able to help, but the challenge is they have got a whole lot of things to deal with.”
The draft bill also proposes strengthening existing protections for children and extending the commissioner’s take-down powers to other online forums, such as online gaming platforms.
It will also legislate a formal statement of expectations for digital platforms, which will contain mandatory reporting requirements detailing how the platforms complied with the expectations.
The bill will also clarify the eSafety Commissioner’s power to respond to events such as the Christchurch terrorist attacks by issuing a “blocking notice” requiring internet service providers block access to sites carrying “abhorrent violent content” for up to three months.
“What happened in the Christchurch incident was the Australian internet service providers voluntarily took the position to block [the content] but they were potentially at some legal risk in doing that,” Mr Fletcher said.
“This is about establishing the right legal framework … and the best way to do that is to have the government issue a notice so internet service providers can act upon that.”
Lisa Visentin is a federal political reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, covering education and communications.