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Fears adult content and sex workers will be forced offline under new Australian tech industry code

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Tero Vesalainen/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Tero Vesalainen/Alamy

Adult content and sex workers could be forced offline under a new code, industry insiders are warning, despite assurances from the eSafety commissioner that powers would not be used for that purpose.

When the Australian government’s Online Safety Act was debated in parliament, it sparked concern the eSafety commissioner’s powers over online content would be vastly expanded, and include a new censorship position to remove or restrict adult content online under section 9 of the act.

The section covers Australian classification rules, over what is and isn’t allowed to be viewed in Australia, and states what is determined to be adult content should either be removed, or only accessible through an age verification system.

Related: The protections of Australia’s online safety bill exclude us sex workers | Gala Vanting

The eSafety commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, attempted to hose down concerns over how she would use her new powers, telling Guardian Australia at the time she didn’t intend 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.”

However, Guardian Australia understands since the legislation passed, the commissioner has been consulting with the tech industry over a new industry code, which may include requirements to force the companies to overhaul their services and remove or restrict adult content.

A positions paper on what the commissioner expects from the mandatory code will be released in the coming weeks. Based on discussions it is understood the office’s thinking has been leaning towards inclusion in the new code of the requirements restricting adult content online.

It is understood sex worker organisations were not consulted in the drafting of the positions paper.

A spokesperson for the eSafety commissioner would not comment on the contents of the position paper, or who had been consulted, beyond stating it would be released shortly. The spokesperson said ultimately the tech industry bodies would be responsible for drafting the new code, and the sex industry would consult with those groups.

Gala Vanting, national program manager of sex worker association Scarlet Alliance, said it was a concern it was being left to industry to consult because it is unclear what the commissioner considers to be industry stakeholders.

“We interpret that they are targeting that at tech. But to check out of their responsibility to the sex worker community in that is a problem, because the eSafety commissioner, having had such a strong background in working with big tech, and social media platforms, knows that they have time and time again refused to engage with us, refused to understand our needs as users, refused to understand how we approach some sort of community standards and online safety,” she said.

“So, leaving this in the hands of technology companies only stands to harm sex worker access to digital citizenship, to our safety tools, our safe spaces.”

Vanting said Scarlet Alliance would seek a meeting with Inman-Grant over the code.

Although the tech industry will develop the code, the commissioner will ultimately decide if it meets her expectations.

The proposed new code would not just apply to sites like Twitter, but also private messaging services, search engines, and app distribution services, suggesting dating apps like Grindr could be covered by the proposed code.

Digi, the association of digital companies in Australia including Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter, has been involved in the discussions. Managing director Sunita Bose said the new code would apply to a broad range of sectors.

“In nine months’ time, every website in Australia, the whole technology industry, and other industries such as retail, will be subject to these mandatory codes, and they will affect Australian internet users,” she said.

“We’ll continue to collaborate with the office of the eSafety commissioner and will be closely examining their position paper for clear guidance on how we take the code development forward, together with other organisations and with the broad range of affected parties.”

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It came as Inman-Grant was interviewed recently by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, a religiously-founded anti-pornography organisation in the United States, which was formerly known as Morality in the Media. The organisation has lobbied for banks to stop processing payments for sites like Pornhub.

Inman-Grant deleted a tweet highlighting her meeting with the group shortly after posting it. A spokesman said deleting, muting and blocking was her recommended action when subject to “inaccurate or offensive posts online”, and said providing an interview does not indicate an endorsement of the organisation.

Much of the concern from both sex workers and the tech industry is that the development of the code is working in parallel with a review of Australia’s outdated classifications system which decides what content is rated, as well as the development of a “roadmap” for age verification for adult content, the development of basic online standards, and the development of restricted access systems for content unsuitable for people under 18. Although all are linked, the outcome of the review of Australia’s classification system could have a vastly different impact over what is allowed online, if the system is updated.

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