ABC Radio National - Interview with Patricia Karvelas

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Should Australia's eSafety Commissioner have authority over all countries on earth? That's the question Elon Musk has posted on X, formally Twitter after the Commissioner ordered the platform to remove graphic video posts of last week's Sydney church stabbing. The Federal Court granted a two-day interim injunction on Monday, giving X 24 hours to take the material down. Both sides are back in court today.
Michelle Rowland is the Communications Minister and joins us this morning on RN Breakfast. Minister, welcome.
KARVELAS: X’s lawyers claimed the platform had already geoblocked the video so users in Australia could not see it unless they're using a VPN service allowing them to see overseas content. How can you expect the content to be banned in other countries?
ROWLAND: Well, this is the subject matter of the case that will come back today, but I think what listeners need to be aware of is that we have an Online Safety Act, we have a piece of law which enables the eSafety Commissioner to issue notices of this kind. This removal notice required X Corporation to take all reasonable steps to ensure the removal of, in this case, what is extreme violent video content of the alleged terrorist attack in Western Sydney. It was given a timeframe to comply with the court's interim order and this next hearing is expected today, and at some stage there will be a final stage hearing.
I think the important thing here is to be clear that eSafety is exercising its powers under Australian law. There is an expectation by Government and I believe across Australia that all platforms that anyone who operates in Australia will comply with those laws. That is exactly what is being prosecuted in this instance.
KARVELAS. So, on that comment that Elon Musk has made online should, in your view, Australia's eSafety Commissioner have authority over all countries on earth?
ROWLAND: Let's be clear, this is about content that is subject to Australian law. This is a matter that's before the court, so, I am not going to engage in the substantive deliberations here. The eSafety Commissioner has exercised their powers in accordance with a law passed by our Parliament. The expectation is that platforms will comply. We know that eSafety engages on an informal basis and including with law enforcement agencies and with other platforms in order to have this type of content removed. We understand that those other platforms have largely complied with those orders. The subject matter here is about X’s compliance.
KARVELAS: Ok, you say largely complied. The ABC has confirmed the graphic video of the attack is still on Facebook - are you aware of that?
ROWLAND: Well, let's be clear that the notices are issued at a particular point in time regarding certain URLs, so they do change over time. That’s why some viewers will see this content. But I make the point that I have made on every occasion: if people see this content as it proliferates, people should not forward it. They should report it to and to the platform itself.
KARVELAS: The content we've seen has been up since April 17 though, so it hasn't been pulled down on Facebook.
ROWLAND: That should be reported. If you've seen it yourself or any listeners have seen it, it should be reported.
KARVELAS: And it's your view that when it is, Facebook is complying each time? So, it's like, kind of like whack a mole a bit, is it?
ROWLAND: I think the other thing to understand is that these notices are issued at a particular point in time, as I said, with particular URLs. They're still capable of being accessed, and we know that, and that is part of the subject matter of the case concerning X right now. We know that people are viewing this content still because it is proliferating on other URLs and it's important that that be reported. The reason why this is capable of being disseminated at speed and scale, irrespective of the notices and the compliance to date that eSafety has noticed amongst other platforms, is because it continues to be shared.  I encourage all of your listeners who see it, don't forward it – report it.
KARVELAS: There are hundreds if not thousands of videos on the Internet, on social media sites that are arguably more violent. Why is this video of the Wakeley stabbing the subject of so much attention? Why this when there is so much content?
ROWLAND: There's a couple of elements there. The first is that this is designated as class 1 material. eSafety operates under the Classification Scheme as it exists in Australia. ‘Class 1’ depicts real violence, it has a very high degree of impact, in a way that's gratuitous and likely to cause offence to a reasonable person. In this case, the very high degree of impact is reached by virtue of the terrorism designation that has been given to this particular event. You are right to note that there is content that proliferates online and which many people would also, in their right minds, deem to be gratuitous and likely to cause offence.
The Classification Scheme in Australia is really one that's been designed at a time when we consumed information and media by books, by watching the TV, video games and by going to the movies. It has not kept pace with the online environment and that is why we are in the process now of a significant piece of work in terms of reviewing the Classification Scheme, because there will be many of your listeners who, whilst there is material that would otherwise not be classified as refused classification or ‘RC’, it's the kind of material that people shouldn't be viewing.
We also, as I announced in November last year, have brought forward a review of the Online [Safety] Act. So, that has been ongoing and this also forms part of that review, around what kind of content in Australia do people reasonably expect to be classified in certain ways or just shouldn't be available at all?
KARVELAS: This isn't the only violent video on social media, as you were just talking about. The body cam footage of Kumanjay Walker, who was shot dead by a Northern Territory police officer in 2019 is still on YouTube. Is that content that you think should be taken down?
ROWLAND: Well, again, these are matters for the independent regulator, eSafety, to determine. And again, eSafety operates as a complaints mechanism, as well as having an educative and a number of other functions. So, again, if you have listeners who have concerns about that or any other pieces of content, is where to report it.
KARVELAS: But do you understand or sympathise with some people who are concerned that there are double standards, that they see some of this content and then so much attention on this particular Wakeley incident, and they feel like there's an inconsistency of rules?
ROWLAND: I think what emerges here is not only an inconsistency in some people's minds about the way in which certain content is treated, there's also an inconsistency in the way content is treated in the online world and in the analogue world as well. This harmonisation is one that's long overdue. It's also one that regulators are grappling with, and it's one that we are taking forward as part of not only our Classification [Scheme Review], but our Online Safety framework in order to ensure that it is fit for purpose.
But, of course, we know that the proliferation of content, it is almost infinite in the online world. There will never be a time when every piece of content is capable of being reported or policed. But what we can do, as Governments and as regulators, is ensure that we operate responsibly and collectively to keep people safe. For example, we don't want vulnerable people to be seeing content that may, for example, lead to their radicalisation. We don't want child sexual abuse or child sexual exploitation material proliferating on the internet. So, in identifying those very specific harms, we as a Government are working methodically across Departments, including with our intelligence [agencies] and the AFP, to ensure that we have robust systems in place, to ensure that we are responding as we should and as quickly as possible with the best tools available to us.
I do want to reassure your listeners that whilst technology is a vector for so many harms, and many of your listeners – and I'm a parent myself – will be feeling the weight and sometimes that's overwhelming about the kinds of harms that are there. I want to reassure them of a couple of things. Firstly, we have a law that deals with harmful content and it's being implemented right now. Where we don't have laws, including in relation to misinformation and disinformation, and the harms that are caused by that which have been identified by our security and our police forces, we have a consultation in place to bring one in to a currently unregulated space. Of course, there is a litany of new and emerging harms, ranging from artificial intelligence, deep fakes, sextortion, child sexual exploitation material, and scams. As a Government, we have a program of work across all of these areas in order to do what we can, not only as a Government, but civil society and industry - everyone doing their roles to help keep Australians safe.
KARVELAS: Minister, just a couple of questions. Today, the big bosses of our intelligence agencies, Mike Burgess, the Federal Police Chief, Rhys Kershaw, will front the National Press Club. Mr Burgess has already outlined some of his ideas that he'll be delivering today and he says that ASIO operations are being seriously compromised by extremists using encrypted messaging. What power do they have to crack down on this, and are you considering more law reform?
ROWLAND: We are definitely concerned about this and it's one in which we are engaging with regulators and Governments around the world. On one side, of course, there is the responsibility to maintain privacy. On the other side, national security agencies are deeply concerned about having the appropriate tools to do their jobs in order to keep Australians safe. I was fortunate to have received a briefing specifically on this by Commissioner Kershaw only in the last couple of days. They have run through some of the techniques that they are utilising, but again, this comes down to the design of these specific tools by the industry.
KARVELAS: Are they saying that the things that they have available to them are no longer working and asking you for more powers?
ROWLAND: They're saying two things. Firstly, that the way in which this technology is designed is done in a way that hampers their ability to do their jobs. But secondly, they have ways in which, and again, I want to reassure your listeners that these are smart people who are working with agencies and with their counterparts around the world to be able to do what is necessary, where there is end to end encryption, to ensure they can still do their jobs, to identify where there are harms emerging and bring people to justice where it's necessary to do so.
I will leave the Commissioner to make his full comments today, but he has been very clear in terms of the industry needing to do more and in terms of the agility which is there within their forces to be able to continue doing their jobs. And they do – and you see that as a result in, for example, the large child sexual abuse extortion rings that are regularly exposed.
KARVELAS: Finally, the social media sites set their own minimum age for users, but often there's no requirement for proof of age. Just ask any young person, honestly, they don't feel restricted by this it seems. The Coalition is now calling for age limits and age verification to be made compulsory. Do you support that?
ROWLAND: Firstly, this is a very live issue and it's one that has been the subject of discussion and work across Departments and also with eSafety. There's not a single parent who isn't concerned about what their children are seeing. Part of the review that we're doing of the Online Safety Act is to make sure that the regulator has the necessary tools. At the same time, we're looking at other issues, the harms to children, including by having recommender systems that push content like misogynistic rubbish and eating disorder videos of children. These are ones that we are very alive to and looking at ways in which to address this.
We've also got my Department scoping what can be done at the moment on age assurance mechanisms. But again, I will detail what eSafety has said in terms of a number of these issues: there's no silver bullet when it comes to these matters. We do require collective effort, and that includes media literacy. That's why we've not only quadrupled base funding for eSafety, but also provided resources so that every school in Australia has access to these media literacy tools. But one of the key things here is exactly as you say about platforms enforcing their own terms of service. If that isn't done as a start, then certainly that does inhibit the ability for regulators to do their jobs.
KARVELAS: Thank you for joining us this morning, Minister.
ROWLAND: Pleasure.