‘It’s Surveillance in a Trenchcoat’: Assembly Four Decodes Australia’s New Online Safety Act
Updated: Apr 25, 2022
Blog Post Written By: Mike Stabile
Last June, the Australian Parliament passed the Online Safety Act which gives the government broad powers to regulate and monitor communication online. The Act, which provides a policy framework but few concrete details for execution, is rife with potential danger for marginalized people including sex workers and young people.
Sex work activists Eliza Sorensen and Lola Hunt of Assembly Four (the company behind sex work friendly platforms Tryst and Switter) have been vocal in their opposition to the bill, and the growing power of Australia’s eSafety Commission. In December, Sorensen and Hunt used Freedom of Information requests to expose conversation between eSafety head Julie Inman Grant and faith-based antiporn group NCOSE.
The first provisions of the bill go into affect on January 23, so I spoke with Assembly Four to discuss the bill, the importation of the anti-porn movement in Australia, and the threat it poses to sex workers globally. — Mike Stabile
In the past year, we’ve seen a number of bills in different countries focusing on age-verification for users and using the threat of illegal content to increase control of the internet. What’s so concerning to you about the Online Safety Act in Australia?
A4: It's surveillance, censorship and state-sanctioned violence in a trenchcoat. Essentially powers that they haven't been able to obtain in other surveillance acts — though they’ve tried over the years. The idea of the Online Safety Bill was to give the eSafety Commissioner power to have certain content pulled from platforms. I do think there are certain things that the eSafety office could do that would be really, really worthwhile, but It's hindered by the fact that they aren’t willing to have a genuine conversation about harm reduction or even admit fault when they’ve caused harm.
If you're looking across the legislation and the delegated legislation, just like FOSTA — they look relatively OK — but when used in conjunction with other executive bodies and the powers they’ve been granted, such as those under the Telecommunications Act and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018, it’s pretty damning. We’ve had some fairly abhorrent pieces of surveillance legislation pass in the last decade or so, and with the AFP [Australian Federal Police] and ASIO [Australian Security Intelligence Organization] being rolled into Home Affairs [the Australian Interior Ministry, similar to the Department of Justice in the US], it’s now harder to fight against pieces of proposed legislation endorsed by these bodies and for civil society to hold them accountable.
eSafety has also been given powers through the Basic Online Safety Expectations [BOSE], where a platform must make reasonable attempts, when it comes to encrypted services, to hand over data when requested. There are potential civil and criminal penalties, and you have to respond within 24 hours. If you don’t respond, they can potentially block your domain until you take action. Or, if you refuse or you’ve received a certain number of infringements, you could lose your ABN [Australian Business Number], which means you lose the ability to run your business and thus, ability to work. With all of this said, there aren’t enough protections in place to protect the people that this Act was slated to protect — there are no clauses specifically for a vexatious claim or being able to hold a platform accountable for any error made in the administration of the notice.
What you're describing sounds like what we’re fighting with the proposed EARN IT Act in the US, which bans end-to-end encryption. In an effort to stop trafficking, they want to end private communications.
We don’t have the same privacy protections as other countries. The UK and Canada have only slightly stronger rights, or at least a better precedent of supporting human rights than Australia does.
Most importantly, Australia does not have the right to freedom of speech or expression enshrined in our constitution or legislation, which continues to be misrepresented by the Australian eSafety commissioner in interviews and presentations that have been given in a professional capacity about what the bill will and won’t do.
Further to this point, there is currently an exposure draft legislation called the Social Media (Anti-Trolling) Bill, the main thing about this bill is that it would give individuals the ability to petition platforms to decloak an individual in the case of defamation, which in Australia is an exceptionally expensive and difficult thing to fight. Under the Online Safety Act, the information gathering and investigative powers are broad, which allows the commissioner to obtain information of a user of a platform or electronic service, this includes a mechanism that the commissioner may ask to be provided with documents in the possession of the end-user that may contain relevant information. This is pretty concerning considering there are no specific carve outs to ensure that platforms or electronic services are not compelled to undermine or weaken encryption.
As a platform or electronic service, you have 24 hours to respond to the request or face the consequences that we mentioned before. As a company, yes, you can choose to fight this — but most small businesses do not have dedicated legal resources or can afford to fight off each and every one of these requests. Ultimately, that’s why we continue to see the mass deplatforming of sex workers because of the percieved legal liability and risk.
We know that bad actors use and abuse automated moderation workflows worldwide to target and silence the voices of sex workers and other margnalized voices online. The changes made in the Online Safety Act continue to reinforce these bad behaviours.
What do you think is driving the passage of the Act? Australia has been traditionally much more relaxed when it comes to sex work than, say, the UK.
I think that’s a fair comment, but it's important to note that not all of Australia has a relaxed view. We still have states that are completely criminalized, we also have states that are decriminalized to a degree but there is a lot of work happening across Australia to make decriminalisation a reality for everyone, not just citizens.
With that said, the right wing in Australia has definitely also grown since the orange man was elected. Four years ago, Australia legalized gay marriage. That entire campaign was exceptionally nasty and I think that brought out a lot of the loud minority fundamentalists who are threatened by change.
I wouldn't say that there's a huge amount of SWERFS in Australia, but we do have a small few who are quite vocal, some of them are academics and have been active in the space for a long time. We have also seen a rise in younger generations taking up SWERF rhetoric from popular social media platforms and alike.
Alongside this we are seeing international influence from other Five Eyes countries [a joint intelligence alliance of primarily English speaking countries] such as the UK. Historically leftist publications like The Guardian are running anti-porn, anti-sex work and anti-trans articles that are originally published on the UK site, but seep into Australia because the content is shared internationally. Most of the pieces that we’ve seen haven't come directly from Australia, but they're being pushed through the Australian publications by UK publishers.
So now even progressives are buying into false narratives around porn and sex work. One of the most difficult things when having conversations about the Online Safety Act or other pieces of similiar legislation is trying to get people to understand that while, yes, this is going to create a lot of harm to sex workers, it will cause more harm to youth than people, organizations and government are willing to acknowledge. Bills like the Online Safety Act are not based in prevention, or really, even harm reduction. Ultimately, it takes away privacy from those who need it most and normalizes surveillance for an entire generation.
To address a lot of the issues faced online, we would really have to look at education for young people, parents and caretakers, educators — it’s literally everyone. At least in Australia, it feels like the mainstream is only just starting to recognize the importance of media literacy, sexual health and wellbeing education such as understanding consent and what constitutes abuse or grooming.
And some of this is coming from the US, correct? In December, with your FOI requests, you were able to show that eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant was working with antiporn groups like NCOSE.
It feels that the rhetoric has gotten worse since Julie Inman Grant became eSafety Commissioner, primarily from the perspective that she's American and those values are intrinsic to how she sees the world. We can see from the policy coming from the type of jobs she has had over the years — such as a legislative assistant in the Bush Administration, lobbyist at Microsoft and Director of Public Policy for Australia and SE Asia at Twitter — that marginalized voices are rarely elevated and taken seriously by these organizations.
However, it’s important to highlight that while the US is exporting certain values, the focus of the Australian eSafety office is global. It was revealed in the [faith-based] NCOSE podcast that there is actually a specific team within eSafety that is assisting other jurisdictions to help draft and pass similar bills [in places like] the UK and Ireland.
Although the commissioner has stated in multiple interviews that she’s not targeting the sex and adult industry, her actions demonstrate different and it’s quite clear that she believes that pornography and sexual expression is inherently harmful.
You’ve been in talks with eSafety. What was that experience like?
I think it’s safe to say it was an experience, and a disappointing one at that Considering these meetings are currently on-going we don’t want to potentially poison the waters, but we do believe that these roundtables aren't being held in good faith. They come off as a check-box exercise to say they have consulted with us — but as we know, being consulted with and being listened to are two very different things.
On January 23rd, the Online Safety Bill takes effect. What does that mean in practical terms for issues like age-verification.
Not all parts are going into play immediately. So for example, the Basic Online Safety Expectations and the new Restricted Access Declaration isn't completed yet. eSafety states that they expect it to be completed by mid-to-late 2022, but as it’s delegated legislation it won’t go through the same amount of scrutiny as the original Bill. The office has reserved the right to lay down implementation plans if industry is not considered to be doing enough, but it’s really hard to determine what’s “enough” when the eSafety refuses to define what success should look like or key metrics to follow.
For example, we know worldwide there is a push to end anonymity on the internet by using third-party — supposedly privacy preserving — digital identity platforms, which is a bit of an oxymoron when you think about it and we know that it’s not just sex workers who are harmed and excluded from the internet when mandaotry identification policies are introduced.
In the last 6-10 months the awareness surrounding these issues have increased, whilst I don’t think we can stop all of the bad legislation coming our way, I do think we always have a chance to fight back and push for a fairer, safer and more equitable internet.
Disclosures: Interview with Assembly Four was edited and condensed for clarity. Assembly Four is also a sponsor of the On The Whorizon podcast, which is powered by Sex Work CEO.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the blog post above are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SexWorkCEO or MelRose Michaels. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything.