Interview with Andy Park, ABC RN Drive

ANDY PARK: The Federal Government wants to give new powers to the Media Watchdog, allowing it to punish misinformation on online platforms. Under the draft legislation, the Australian Communications and Media Authority could impose millions of dollars in penalties on platforms breaching misinformation and disinformation standards. But something, including the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, have expressed concerns the laws could jeopardise free speech. Joining me on RN Drive is the Communications Minister, Michelle Rowland. Welcome to you.


PARK: Minister, can you start off by explaining how this bill is actually going to combat misinformation?

ROWLAND: There's three ways. The first is that it will be holding the big digital platforms to account for what they already say they are going to do. Currently, there is a voluntary industry code which has in it certain systems and processes that the signatories have said they will adhere to in order to guard against mis and disinformation. The second part is enabling the regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, to request information from the platforms and have some record keeping rules to hold those platforms to account on how they are meeting their own standards. The third part is that there is a graduated set of rules within this draft law that says, yes, the platforms can be fined large amounts if they fail to comply, but also recognising that this is an area where the platforms already regulate themselves. They already moderate content that's on their platforms. So, there will be nothing in that graduated set of powers that enables the regulator to look at individual pieces of content or to otherwise order removal of content. In a nutshell, it is holding the platforms to account for the measures they say they will already take in relation to stopping the spread of harmful mis and disinformation.

PARK: The Human Rights Commissioner is concerned about how broad these terms are and these terms such as ‘misinformation’ and how they're defined. How will they be defined?

ROWLAND: The draft bill proposes a definition that goes to information that's false, misleading or deceptive. It's shared without intent to deceive, which is different to disinformation, but also it causes serious - and contributes to – harm, that is serious. So, it needs to be satisfying those elements. But I should point out this is an exposure draft.

We have currently a definition that is in the digital platform's own code that goes to this issue. There are other elements of existing laws passed under the previous government, including the Online Safety Act, which deals with issues of what is harm. What we are seeking here through our public consultation process is getting the balance right between those harms, protecting Australians and the need to ensure freedom of speech.

PARK: Under the bill, content published by the Government can't be classified as misinformation, but that doesn't apply to content authorised by the Opposition, minor parties and independents. If government content can never be defined as misinformation but content critical of the government, produced by political opponents might be, how is that good for democracy?

ROWLAND: I think we should be clear that there are exemptions and they include the content of private messages, satire, educational and professional news content.

One example of content that comes from governments is if a government is providing advice on social media about how to evacuate during a Bushfire period, is content that could but should not be removed by digital platforms. We are engaging very closely with disaster management agencies because we have unfortunately seen situations where bad actors have spread mis and disinformation with the intent of harming Australians.

But again, I point out that this is a consultation process. We will continue to engage with those agencies and we are very grateful for the many contributions that have been made from organisations and we are determined to ensure that we get this right. This consultation process is directly informing how we define those specific issues and how we classify those exemptions.

PARK: Will the media authority be the one to define what is misinformation?

ROWLAND: No, that is currently already done by definition by the platforms themselves, so they will not be out there determining individual pieces of content for what is and is not.

PARK: How does the authority act then, if it doesn't have its own definition of misinformation?

ROWLAND: We will have a definition in the bill, but what the authority will be doing is looking at systems and processes. It will be seeking information from the platforms about how they are adhering to their own code. And again, I should stress that currently there is a scheme that's in place under the industry code where platforms regularly, routinely, in fact every minute of nearly every day, are moderating content that is on their platforms.

People have complained in the past about a range of issues that go to that lack of transparency, and that includes the inability to make complaints or to understand fully why some content may have been removed. It is no mean feat that some 70% of Australians are concerned about the level of mis and disinformation because it spreads with such rapid speed at a scale that was incapable of being understood even a decade ago.

PARK: So, on that you'd be aware that Meta recently suspended its partnership with RMIT Fact Lab. This is in part because there is a perception that its fact checks are biased towards Labor. I should add that drivers made several requests to speak to the head of RMIT's Fact Lab. Those requests are ongoing. What's your response to this?

ROWLAND: That is an excellent question because through its graduated powers, the ACMA could require platforms to do more from a systems perspective. That can include developing complaints handling, as I just mentioned, also creating community tools to report content or requiring fact checkers. But ultimately what this is about, is encouraging the platforms to take this content seriously.

PARK: In that example, wouldn’t that platform be fined if they published a fact check which calls out a Labor policy or comment that is factually wrong?

ROWLAND: That is not where the fines actually come in. The fines would come in at a point where the industry failed to comply with a registered code and the regulator was satisfied that action should be taken.

I should explain for context, there are in fact in the telco and broadcasting sectors, the ability to impose very large fines on the telco and broadcasting operators. That is something that is actually rarely done. It's rarely done because it operates under a largely incentivised system and where there have been large fines, that's largely been the result of another regulator, for example the ACCC imposing fines in relation to consumer conduct. What these fines are intended to do is to provide the incentives to do the right thing. But back to your point about fact checking. It is currently a situation where there is a lack of transparency in this area. I have engaged through this consultation process with a number of groups who have asked me about specific instances where people have tried to find out why they were de-platformed, for example. Again, this is not about the regulator looking at individual pieces of content, but it is about examining the systems and processes of the platforms and holding them to account for what they say they are going to do under their own code.

PARK: Let's move on to a couple of other things, Minister. Firstly, Australia Post has recorded a $200 million loss in the 2023 financial year. Is Australia Post finally going to see the reform that it's been calling for and to make it continually viable?

ROWLAND: We continue to undertake consultation in relation to Australia Post. We undertook a broad community engagement in response to a discussion paper earlier this year and what we found were two really important things. Firstly, Australia Post is still valued as a very trusted organisation and in many cases, it provides essential services, especially in regional areas where sometimes they operate as the general store and the only banking service in town.

PARK: At great cost. I mean, because the longer this goes on and the more consultation that happens, the more money Australia Post and the taxpayers are going to lose, I would have thought, Minister.

ROWLAND: Well, let's be very clear. Over the last decade, as this has been developing, there was no action by the previous government in this area. We have decided that instead of releasing new regulations in the middle of the night under the previous government, which would have resulted in one in four posties losing their jobs, we are asking the Australian public what they want from their postal service. We have committed to keeping it in public ownership and we've also committed to do something about it. Doing nothing is not an option here. The only way that we ensure that those important community services that I just mentioned, especially in terms of regional Australia, are maintained is by having a sustainable, viable postal service going forward.

Now, Australia Post has indicated its challenges in terms of pricing, in terms of their retail branches, but also in terms of their delivery. We know that in terms of delivery, it is not only an expensive component, but it also means that where there is same day delivery as we currently have in most parts of Australia metropolitan areas, people are not receiving letters anymore. Letters are in unstoppable decline. So, we do have to undertake reform in this area. We know this, the workforce knows this. But we are not going to do what our predecessors did. We are engaging with the workforce, we are engaging with Australia Post and we are engaging with Australian consumers to determine what is the best course of action here.

PARK: Okay, Minister, I don't want to run out of time. I just want to ask about another taxpayer issue. Your colleague, Defence Minister Richard Marles, has reportedly spent $3.6 million on private military flights to get him closer to home in Geelong. Does this pass the pub test to you?

ROWLAND: Well, I think it's very clear, as demonstrated by his answers in Question Time today, that this is an example of muckraking by the Opposition. The Opposition itself does not come to this with clean hands at all, and the Minister has responded to those queries. He has acted in a way that upholds the dignity of that office. He is working extremely hard in an area, again, which was left in absolute disarray by the previous government.

PARK: But if it's clean hands that you require from the Minister, whether it be the former government or this one, wouldn't more transparency over Mr Marles' flights be important to you?

ROWLAND: Well, if you want to talk about transparency, the fact is that he has responded to these questions and he is working hard to ensure that we have the best defence capabilities that we have. It's clear that the only response that the Opposition can come up with in their typically destructive way, is to go towards muckraking.

PARK: Okay, just before I let you go, we know that Ita Buttrose will be stepping down as the Chair of the ABC at the end of the year or early next year. Will you be following the recommendations of the appointed panel to appoint the new Chair or will you be making a captain's pick like the last government?

ROWLAND: I think the answer to that is very clear. We have started the process. We have been advertising for the new Chair's position and we will go through that nomination panel process. It is one which is slightly different to the directors, which is currently being undertaken at the moment, because it does involve the Prime Minister as well. We have already kicked off that process. But in closing, Ms Buttrose has performed an outstanding job as Chair of the ABC. As I have said, she was the right Chair for the right time. She brought a wealth of experience to the role, and she has left the public broadcaster in a better state than when she arrived.

PARK: Federal Communications Minister Michelle Rowland. I do appreciate your time this afternoon. Thank you.