Interview with ABC Radio Sydney, Breakfast with Craig Reucassel

CRAIG REUCASSEL, HOST: Are you struggling to pay your phone bill? From Friday, new rules will come into force that will require telcos to better support customers struggling with bills and cost of living. Michelle Rowland is the Federal Communications Minister, she's the Member for Greenway in Western Sydney and joins me this morning from Parliament House in Canberra. Thanks for joining us, Michelle.
REUCASSEL: Now, we'll get to these new rules in a minute, but I just want to get your reaction to the news overnight that Julian Assange has been granted a kind of temporary legal lifeline by the High Court in London at the moment. What's the Government's perspective on this?
ROWLAND: The Government acknowledges this ruling has been made and the Court's requirement for the United States to provide further information in this regard – including around the death penalty and the First Amendment.
Of course, our thoughts are with Mr. Assange and his family. We will continue to monitor proceedings closely, and the Prime Minister and the Government has been very clear this case has dragged on for too long. The matter needs to be brought to a close, and I do know that the Prime Minister and Minister Wong have personally raised this issue with the US and UK Governments.
The Government in Australia is engaging closely with Mr. Assange and his legal team and we will continue to do that. I was in the UK recently, and was briefed by High Commissioner Smith, and Mr Assange continues to be provided with consular support. So, I guess, the last thing I would say on this one is, of course, Mr Assange is entitled due process, to humane and fair treatment, access to proper medical care and legal representation. So, we acknowledge the ruling, we'll continue to monitor it and provide consular assistance.
REUCASSEL: Obviously, the Court ruling is one particular protection here, or particular avenue for protecting Julian Assange. The diplomatic avenues - there's been rumors of a potential deal, of a plea deal here. Is that what's been pushed by the Government as part of the diplomatic efforts?
ROWLAND: I have no information in that regard, but I do know, as I said, that this matter has been personally raised by the Prime Minister and Minister Wong with their US and UK counterparts.
REUCASSEL: Okay, moving on to these new telco rules which come in on Easter Friday. How will they work? What's the new rules?
ROWLAND: Well, this recognises, firstly, that communications are an essential utility, just like electricity and water and other essential services. We know that people are doing it tough right now with cost of living pressures, and the Prime Minister has given all his Ministers a very clear instruction to consider how each portfolio can assist in a very practical way with cost of living.
So, we took on-board findings by the Regulator - the ACMA - which found that over 2 million Australian adults had been experiencing financial difficulty or concerns about their telco bills. Whilst the rates of telco - what we call financial hardship - are significant, there's only actually a small proportion of customers who receive hardship support, and that's because today the mechanisms for doing that are contained in Industry Codes, not in a directly enforceable standard.
What I have chosen to do, and I made this decision some months ago, was, that I would direct the Regulator - the ACMA - to make an enforceable Standard. We consulted closely with industry and advocacy groups, and last month, the ACMA issued its new Industry Standard on Financial Hardship, and that will now come into effect this Friday, 29 March.
This is an important provision that means we now have direct requirements on the telcos to do a number of things. But ultimately the outcome here is about keeping people connected, understanding how important that is, but also, we want people to know that the telcos are now required to do these extra steps.
REUCASSEL: So, just what are these extra steps? So, if I'm suffering financial hardship and I can't pay my phone bill, but I really need my phone for work or for whatever other reason, what do I have to do? Do I contact my telco? Do I contact the Government? What do I do to actually put this in place?
ROWLAND: Certainly, you need to contact your provider and discuss what arrangements might be available, and I'll give you some idea of some of the practical things that need to be done now. Customers need to be offered a minimum of six different options for assistance, like payment plans, options to extend or defer payments, and telcos also need to develop proactive systems to identify customers experiencing financial hardship. So, rather than wait for people who would be particularly vulnerable, be proactive in contacting them and seeing if they need help.
In some cases, Craig, this could be because some customers are on plans that aren't appropriate for them as well. But the key thing that I would like listeners to know is, in reaching out to the telcos, there is a requirement under this Industry Standard for the telcos to have staff that are appropriately trained to support customers who are under financial pressure.
We will be monitoring this very closely through the Regulator, because the key thing is if people contact their provider, they need to be given that support and that requires proper front-end training. We'll be monitoring this, as I said, very closely. But my key call out here is to reach out if you are experiencing financial hardship, we want you to stay connected.
REUCASSEL: All right. And if your actual provider is not giving you enough help with this, who do you contact then? Do you go to the Ombudsman? Who do you go to if you don't think they're doing enough?
ROWLAND: The next step is the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman. So, the first requirement is that you attempt to resolve it with your provider. If you don't, you go to the TIO. But I should also point out that having these requirements as an enforceable Standard means that telcos face penalties of up to a quarter of a million dollars for each breach of the rules in the Standard. So, it's a very significant incentive for the telcos to do the right thing, and also the ACMA, as I said, will be monitoring this very closely.
REUCASSEL: Now, Meta has said they're no longer going to pay for journalism in other newspapers, kind of going back against the deal that was done with the Government. Facebook’s set to shut down its news tab in early April - that's next week. Instagram has said they're going to put new limits on political content appearing in users' feeds. Are you in negotiation with Meta over this? And are you concerned about the effect of this on democracy if news is going to be excluded from all these websites? I mean, it is statistics showing that about 50% of kids, for instance, get their news from Instagram. Are you concerned about these moves?
ROWLAND: It is a very significant concern of the Government, because we know that in a thriving democracy, having access to free media and proper journalism that is subject to scrutiny and standards is absolutely fundamental to our democracy. That has been the key driver of the Government in this regard, as we respond to this Meta decision.
Public interest journalism needs to be funded, and we now have a law that's been in place for some years now, and that has provided that incentive for the digital platforms to do these commercial deals. The Government made it very clear to Meta and also to Google, in the lead up to this decision that Meta had taken, that we expect compliance with the News Media Bargaining Code and that we expect the parties to negotiate in good faith.
REUCASSEL: What punishment does the Government have if they don't do it? If Meta just says no, we're not going to do that, what punishment is there that the Government can use?
ROWLAND: Well, there's two issues here. The first is that there needs to be a process followed under the News Media Bargaining Code where there is a failure to come to commercial agreement - that is now in the hands of the ACCC, and they are doing their job. In the meantime, of course, we do have this legislation and we know that Meta having such large revenues and market power and wealth that exceeds the GDP of some nations, does have a track record around the world.
Now, I should point out for your listeners, this decision that was made some weeks ago by Meta was announced not only in relation to Australia, but also the United States. This is a pattern of behaviour by Meta and we are very well aware of some of the other issues that involve Meta at the moment in terms of their lack of responsibility, lack of transparency and accountability, which is only capable of being exercised when you do have that market power.
Things like Meta being the worst platform for online scams, not doing enough in terms of online safety, particularly for children, and the lack of transparency with its algorithms, are causing great social harms.
Your listeners would have seen a number of reports even this week around that.
So, we are following the process in the Code and there is a very strong reason for that. As I said, this is a highly litigious organisation with deep pockets. We need to follow this very closely, but of course, the Government is well aware and is examining a range of issues involving Meta and their lack of good corporate citizenship when it comes to online harms.
REUCASSEL: Yeah, okay. We are speaking to Michelle Rowland, the Federal Communications Minister - it's 13 minutes to 8 here on ABC Radio, Sydney. Just finally, Florida's banned children under 14 from using smartphones and social media. NSW Premier Chris Minns said he'd back a national review into the impact of social media companies. Will you commit to running this? Do you think this is a direction Australia might go in?
ROWLAND: Well, keeping Australians safe online is obviously the first priority of Government, and particularly in terms of young people and their vulnerabilities. It's an issue that's recognised by regulators around the world and they're grappling with it. Equally, States and Territories are grappling with it.
We have a number of measures that are on foot at the moment. Of course, in Australia we are fortunate to have a well-resourced regulator in eSafety, but also an Online Safety Act that provides an important legal framework there.
We continue to work with the States and Territories in terms of understanding their data and ensuring that we have a robust framework that is properly enforced.
But of course, keeping children safe online is a collective responsibility. It's a responsibility of industry, which needs to lift its game, of regulators, of civil society and of law enforcement. To that end, I have brought forward a review of the Online Safety Act which is being undertaken and will present its findings to me this year, because although this law has only been in place for a couple of years, so many new and emerging harms are now prevalent. Everything from deep fakes and the impact of generative AI, to the impact of young people and recommender systems and eating disorders.
REUCASSEL: Yeah, absolutely - there's a lot of issues. Thanks so much, Michelle. Rowland, appreciate you talking to us about this new rule regarding phone lines as well.