Interview with Deborah Knight, 2GB Sydney Afternoons

DEBORAH KNIGHT, HOST: Well, this meeting has just wrapped up between government, state and federal domestic violence organisations and the dating app industry to try to make online dating safer. Because as it stands right now, it is not safe enough. Around three-quarters of dating app users are subjected to online sexual abuse – three-quarters. It’s appalling, and the perpetrators, as we know, usually get away with it because, well, there are hardly if any checks and balances to protect users to make sure that people who perhaps have a history of domestic violence or sexual violence can’t use apps, dating apps, to target more victims. They get away with it scot-free, and if a crime is not allowed in the real world, it should not be okay online.

Well, this meeting has just wrapped up and, as promised, the Federal Communications Minister, Michelle Rowland, is with us now. Minister, welcome to the program.


KNIGHT: What have you come up with?

ROWLAND: I think we have several action points. The first is what we heard in the room - the need to prevent the exploitation of online dating services by perpetrators. Secondly, we need to support users who experience harm. We need to empower users with safer online dating practices. And, third, we need – and I think that the dating apps that were part of the discussion today all agreed –  a greater use of technology to prevent these harms occurring online and in the real world. I think it was a very collaborative discussion today.

I will stress that this was a first step. But exactly as you say, late last year when we received this research from the Australian Institute of Criminology, it was a stark reminder that the number one role of Government is to keep Australians safe. It’s important that we have a collaborative approach between departments, between State and Federal Governments, but also between industry and our regulators to actually get change.

KNIGHT: Well, it’s all good and well for these dating apps – I don’t know that some of the international head honchos of the various sites were at that meeting with you today. I mean, they can talk the talk, but they need to walk the walk, and apart from giving lip service to saying “yes, we need to do better”, have they committed to doing better? What have they told you they’re prepared to do?

ROWLAND: Firstly I’m pleased that we actually did have a number of the heads of some of the dating app organisations from the United States and from India in the room today. So I think that demonstrates the importance of this issue, and I think it also reflects the fact that this is a Government that will act to keep Australians safe.

I’d also point out that even in the last couple of days in the lead-up to this forum, the dating apps have been incentivised to announce further safety measures they have been taking, and I think that that’s very pleasing to see. But also, the dating apps are well on notice to make no mistake that the Federal Government has levers available to take further action if the industry does not. We made that very clear with the eSafety Commissioner. We have an Online Safety Act that’s about to hit its first-year anniversary of implementation, and the Basic Online Safety Expectations.. We will ensure that we do everything we can, exercising those powers, to keep Australians safe.

KNIGHT: And what sort of penalties will they face?

ROWLAND: Some of those penalties are monetary, and they can sometimes include very heavy liabilities. But the point here is that we want to have prevention as a starting point. I feel it was very important to have my colleague Minister Amanda Rishworth there, who’s responsible for the implementation on the National Plan to Eliminate Violence Against Women. We have expended considerable resources over many years in research and in empowering Australians to keep themselves safe. We want to get this embedded in these apps.

We want to utilise the important work and the evidence base that already exists.. And I think that it’s insufficient to simply say that there is a single bullet that is going to fix this. It will be a range of legislative and educative options here.

I would want to leave your listeners in no doubt that this Government is very ready to act. We understand the deep community concern  out there and this has really elicited a very strong response from the community. This is a first step, and we have set out measures that we will do in the first instance, including reporting this back to the Federal, but also the State Attorneys-General so that we get some real change in this area.

KNIGHT: And have you got a timeline here? Because, frankly, the dating apps and a lot of the online companies, not just in the dating sphere, they just completely cop out here. And, I mean, the technology that they can utilise is already available because we’ve got the banks already detecting violent language used in money transfers by domestic violence perpetrators. They’re already embracing technology already at hand. Have you given a deadline to these companies to say, “Look, sort your stuff out or else”?

ROWLAND: I want to assure your listeners they are very much on notice from today that we are going to take every lever at our disposal to ensure that there is change, that this environment gets better.

KNIGHT: In what timeframe?

ROWLAND: This will be done as a matter of priority. We have come out of this, and without hesitation I will say we are going to be very quick in briefing the Attorneys-general, seeing what we can get done there. But certainly our eSafety Commissioner has made it very clear that we have these levers at our disposal and we will be exercising them.

I want to assure all of your listeners that this remains a very top priority for us, and we will continue to monitor the sort of expectations that Australians have and the representations that these dating apps have made. They have given us an account of all of their technology like the artificial intelligence that they are using, and Australians expect them to do more.  I’m pleased to say there was an acknowledgement that they need to do more as well.

KNIGHT: Well, of course they do. Because, you know, we’ve seen, time and time again, the laws that apply in the real world just don’t in the online world. One of the ways that have been raised by one of the organisations at the meeting today, Full Stop Australia, which do a lot of work helping domestic violence victims – they’re calling for mandatory ID checks on dating apps, and they want a national domestic violence offender register, too. But surely that’s the starting point – mandatory ID checks so that people can’t just make up who they are and shop around if they are perpetrators, if they wreak havoc on one dating site they can just make up an entirely different identity and head somewhere else.

ROWLAND: Well, certainly that issue of “phoenixing” – where bad actors on these dating apps pop up somewhere else – is significant. The key to this is technology; having some sort of digital authentication to ensure that these people can’t simply go under another alias on the same app or go to another app. It’s pleasing to see that one of the incentives that the dating apps have actually done is providing open source for some of these technologies they already have. That means sharing them with other dating apps to ensure that they can utilise the same safety mechanisms.

In terms of having a single register, we heard from victim survivors today that there are mixed views on this because it can have unintended consequences. For example, not every perpetrator is someone who is on a particular register for having had a criminal offence. And we would not want – and certainly this is the view of the advocates – people to have a false sense of security that just because someone is not on a register that they are someone who can be trusted and someone with whom they would be safe.

I think this is a vexed area. But, again, it will come down, I believe, to the technology, to the basic standards and a really big issue of transparency in terms of complaints handling. One of the key issues raised – and you alluded to it in your comments earlier – when complaints are made: how seriously they are taken and what sort of remedies are offered to victims? It shouldn’t just be seen as another data point. Again, this is something where our existing regulatory tools under the Basic Online Safety Expectations can play a really important role.

KNIGHT: So a matter of priority – I’m going to pin you down on this – are you talking this week, are you talking this year, 10 years’ time? What’s the deadline? What’s the time frame?

ROWLAND: Australians would expect us to be doing this absolutely expeditiously. But I think that it’s important for the Government to keep people informed about what we are doing in this area. And certainly we have some specific obligations under our Basic Online Safety Expectations for the first half of this year. But I would expect that we would be getting back to the Australian public to let them know how we are progressing with this, because, quite frankly –

KNIGHT: But when? I’m just after some sort of time frame?

ROWLAND: Certainly, in the first quarter of this year I expect that we will be having a report back on that. Whether there are legislative or other regulatory changes that need to happen, what we will do will examine all of these options. I want to stress, Deb, the reason that I’m reluctant to give a specific date is because this is the first of many conversations. We need to scope this out, not only with the industry but with our regulators and with victim survivor groups. And these need to be really well consulted on with the people this impacts. I would want to make sure – and I’m sure every Government across Australia would want to make sure – that we are implementing the very best laws that are going to have the best effect, rather than laws that are incapable of implementation and don't have the desired effect of keeping Australians safe.

KNIGHT: Yeah, well, I'm glad that the first step has been taken today. Minister, thanks so much for joining us.

ROWLAND: Pleasure.