Australian Top Censor Moving Forward With Controversial Age Verification Scheme

Australian Top Censor Moving Forward With Controversial Age Verification Scheme

CANBERRA, Australia — Australia’s eSafety Commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, who has acknowledged having conversations with the U.S.-based, religiously-inspired anti-porn lobby NCOSE, is now “developing a roadmap to implement age verification for online pornographic sites.”

The news was reported by the Canberra Times this morning, with the newspaper also noting that Inman Grant intends to present the roadmap to the federal government by the end of the year.

According to the report, these age verification trials are now “under way” in Australia for online gambling and alcohol sales, and are projected to be “expanded to include online pornography as the federal government looks to restrict sexually explicit content on the internet from underage children.”

Unlike the U.S., Australia does not have any blanket protections of free speech like the First Amendment, or a Section 230 analog protecting platforms from liability for third-party uploads.

The new guidelines, which Inman Grant has been promoting nationally and — to the surprise of local observers — chiefly internationally, would necessitate a government definition of “pornographic website” or “adult website,” and would also have to specify if non-porn-specific platforms such as Twitter and Reddit, which tolerate adult content, would also fall under that category unless they ban all sexual content.

Back in November, Australian news publication Crikey published a lengthy report on Inman Grant’s obsession with banning online porn. The report revealed documents, obtained under Australia's Freedom of Information Act, in which the country’s top internet regulator revealed explicit animosity towards press coverage of her contacts with NCOSE, formerly known as Morality in Media, and other foreign crusading organizations.

The Censor Blames 'Angry Porn People'

The Crikey report was titled “Caught in ‘Porn Wars’: Backlash Over Internet Censor Going on Anti-Porn Podcast” and noted that “LGBTIQ+ and sex worker communities [were] furious eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant did not do due diligence before appearing on a podcast.”

Staff from the office of Inman Grant’s office admitted to Crikey that “her appearance on the podcast of a US-based anti-porn, anti-sex trafficking organization added to LGBTIQ+ and sex worker communities’ fears about her new powers.”

Inman Grant’s appearance on the podcast “was a recorded interview broadcast at the Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation summit in July, just weeks after the Parliament passed the Online Safety Act.”

According to Crikey’s sources in the Australian regulator’s office, “it was only after the podcast was published in September and promoted on Inman Grant’s Twitter account that it drew the attention, and ire, of people online who criticized her for appearing with NCOSE. This was influenced by news editor of sex industry trade publication XBIZ Gustavo Turner’s coverage.”

Crikey then cites the FOIA-obtained internal emails where Inman Grant disparages the XBIZ coverage which exposed her association with the long-running religiously-inspired U.S. lobby as “misinformation,” without clarifying which part of the XBIZ report she deemed not factual.

XBIZ stands by its reporting.

According to the documents obtained by Crikey,

In an email sent shortly after with the subject line “Angry porn people and the LGBTQI+ community,” Inman Grant tells two other staff that there are “U.S.-based porn people spreading a fair amount of misinformation” about the interview. She says that she doesn’t think NCOSE is a religious organization and chalks up the opposition to the sex industry having a “beef” with them.

“This may be our ‘new normal’ now that we have been thrown in the midst of the ‘porn wars’ …,” she writes.

One staff member replied, confused about Inman Grant’s appearance. They attached a screenshot from a Google search of NCOSE that shows it listed as “an American nonprofit known for its anti-pornography and anti-sex trafficking advocacy”: “Is this accurate? Who recommended that we do this? Was due diligence done?” they asked.

A staff member responds later by raising the alarm about NCOSE’s past efforts, including trying to block LGBTIQ+ content on schools computers.

“So this feeds into that narrative that we have discussed earlier — that some sectors of the community (most notably the LGBTIQ+ community) are very distrustful of the government and feel that eSafety’s new powers are a bit of a Trojan Horse to silence their voices and/or consensual or positive porn,” they wrote.

These emails back up Inman Grant’s previous public statements that she was unaware of the background of NCOSE, and that she appeared in response to its invitation.

Inman Grant and staff agreed to delete her tweet promoting the podcast, but advised against speaking to XBIZ.

“This is a good lesson for the due diligence that needs to be done through the invitations process … But yes all, a cautionary tale …” Inman Grant wrote.

Continuing Opacity

But today’s report by the Canberra Times, also the product of an FOIA request, shows the continuing opacity in Inman Grant's dogged attempt to implement the censorship-leaning age verification legislation supported by NCOSE and other War on Porn crusaders by hook or crook.

“Documents released under a freedom of information request by The Canberra Times show the online safety office is considering teaming up with the Digital Transformation Agency on trials using government identification as it explores different methods to stop those under the minimum age from accessing online pornography,” the Canberra Times reported.

“Both agencies denied conducting trials for the moment but said they were working together to support ‘online safety outcomes,’” the report continued. “Neither responded to questions surrounding the planned timelines or the agencies' roles and responsibilities.”

The DTA's Trusted Digital Identity Framework “forms part of a government push to streamline the identity system. It provides users with access to government services and benefits using a reusable digital identity without needing to complete official forms each time. The framework would allow third-party private providers to join onto the system, too.”

International tech news site Gizmodo today recapped the Canberra Times article, headlining it with the warning “Age Verification Could Be Back on the Cards for Australian Porn Users.”

Australian Public Caught Between Surveillance and 'Techno-Solutionism'

XBIZ spoke today with the founder of Australian sex work and technologist group Assembly Four, Eliza Sorensen, who submitted the request for the FOIA documents cited by Crikey.

"There is an increasingly worrying trend not just in Australia, but worldwide," she said, "where policymakers from government, private industry and not for profits attempt to regulate the internet and technology without properly assessing whether or not the proposed solutions cause more harm than the mischief they’re trying to manage and whether or not the proposed solutions are proportionate."

For Sorensen, there are two types of policymakers with power in Australia at the moment: "One party who is interested in further amassing power to surveil and censor the population, and the other, who are misled and ignorant to the nuance and complexity of the issues that they believe they can stop with capitalistic techno-solutionism."

Main Image: Australia's eSafety Commissioner Julia Inman Grant

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