eSafety prepares for Online Safety Act with AU$3m software pilot and 20 new staff


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The Australian eSafety Commissioner was handed AU$21 million in the 2021-22 Budget earlier this month, with the funding to be spread across software, more staff, and continuing its work on technology-facilitated abuse involving children.

With Prime Minister Scott Morrison parading the recent Budget as “supporting Australian women”, eSafety’s funding falls under this umbrella.

A “women’s online package” includes AU$15 million over two years for eSafety to increase its investigations capability — the hiring of 20 more staff in line with anticipated passage of the Online Safety Act — and AU$3 million for a software pilot.

During Senate Estimates on Thursday, eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant was grilled over the funding amount and was asked to provide specifics on a piece of tech that was not yet scoped, given the Budget announcement was only made a few weeks prior.

“AU$3 million has been dedicated to a pilot … this has been something we’ve been thinking about since 2017. In some of the most egregious cases we’ve seen, we’ve had people come to us with 400 different URLs — if you’ve got a very determined predator, they can put it on multiple websites, image boards, rogue porn sites,” she explained before being interrupted.

“First of all, we’re going to need to scope a number of things, in terms of legality, and asking consent, and how long we might trawl the web, how we would construct the tool. 

“We haven’t said we’re going to spend this much — we might decide to build the technology from scratch, if we don’t find any commercial version of AI … we would want to make sure that any technology we were using, and it might not just be a software tool, it may be infrastructure that’s required, so I’m not prepared to say how much we would pay for the technology per se, because there is a lot of work that would need to go around it.”

The existing Olympus investigative system eSafety currently uses was built from the ground up using some commercial products, by a lot of the agency’s own developers, she added.

“This is the first time that we’ve been granted funding to be able to properly scope this,” she said.

Inman Grant is set to receive sweeping powers with the passage of the Online Safety Bill 2021. Among other things, the Bill extends the cyber takedown function currently in place for children to adults.

See also: Bill establishing cyber abuse takedown scheme for adults enters Parliament

The agency has received 3,600 adult cyber abuse-related requests since it began taking them informally in 2017.

Only 72 of them, however, eSafety considered as reaching the threshold for “real harm”. One of them, Inman Grant said, was “horrific”, and a few of them involved domestic violence and stalking.

“We’ve leveraged our relationships with social media platforms to help remove material in 72 of the most serious cases,” eSafety head of investigations Toby Dagg added.

If eSafety had formal powers, that 72 figure would be higher.

“Because [we] don’t have formal powers in this area and there’s no scheme to apply, they have represented the most serious matters that have warranted us coordinating with platforms to have that material removed,” Dagg said.

“There is no power, so we’re actually relying on the goodwill of the platforms to act when we think people are at risk of serious harm,” Inman Grant added.

“We’re not trying to use the sledgehammer every single time … we’re not asserting any legal authority, we are telling them that’s someone who we believe is at risk and who is experiencing extreme distress due to content that’s on their site.”

About 70% of the adult cyber abuse cases eSafety has held informally possessed an element of defamation to them.

IF YOU OR ANYONE YOU KNOW IN AUSTRALIA NEEDS HELP CONTACT ONE OF THESE SERVICES:

  • Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
  • Lifeline on 13 11 14
  • Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
  • MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
  • Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36
  • Headspace on 1800 650 890
  • QLife on 1800 184 527

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