Interview with Greg Jennet, ABC Afternoon Briefing

GREG JENNET, HOST: New figures out today suggest there has been a big jump in the number of people copping unwanted, insulting or generally offensive content in their online digital lives. We're talking about 75% of adults here, according to research by the eSafety Commissioner. With that in mind, we caught up with Communications Minister Michelle Rowland on that and some related matters just a little earlier today.
 Michelle Rowland, Safer Internet Day involved a survey of 4000 adults in this country. 75%. Three quarters received unwanted content, whether it be porn, violent material, insults. The only thing that seemed to surprise me about that is that it isn't even higher. Our daily experience seems to be that it's constant. Were you at all surprised?
MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: It’s unfortunate that statistic is actually a 30% increase on the same figures for 2019. We can see an increase in the number of people who have experienced some sort of online abuse. As you say, that can take many forms. It can be unwanted content, it can be abusive language, but it is unacceptable. That is why on Safety Internet Day 2023, we are calling on Australians to connect, to reflect and to protect. To understand that we do have these resources in a world leading agency, the eSafety Commissioner, and also to reflect on our own behaviours. But to also have those conversations and to ensure that we are protecting ourselves, one another and in particular our children and those most vulnerable in our society.
HOST: Yes, so there is government money going through a range of programmes, but as you mentioned to the eSafety Commissioner as one embedded in that. Is there an acceptance that the reality of the internet is that this content is not going away? In fact, there may even be more of it that bombards us in the future. The only protection is through the way we filter it and consume.
ROWLAND: I think the most important principle here is that behaviour that will be considered unacceptable in the actual world is unacceptable in the online world as well. I think that it's important to note that the eSafety Commissioner actually has these powers. If you have complained to a platform or if you have experienced this type of unwanted content, that you can report it at So, we do have these mechanisms and we do have these resources in place. The key message to Australians today is to take advantage of them, to understand that they are there and to know that in particular, for vulnerable people like children, these can be reported. Because the number one priority of this government is keeping Australians safe and that includes online.
HOST: It's one thing to report it and have a mechanism to do that. What's your assessment? That's relatively early days. What's your assessment of the responsiveness of the platforms to this regime?
ROWLAND: I think there's two points to make there. Firstly, we have just had the first anniversary of the Online Safety Act and the eSafety Commissioner has been operating within that framework to establish a number of Codes of Practice and reporting mechanisms that apply to the platforms. From there, the second part of this is if the eSafety Commissioner is dissatisfied with the responses of those platforms, there are other regulatory mechanisms that we can deploy. So this is a graduated scheme, it is in its infancy, but we know that people online need to be kept safe, that they are concerned about their safety, and that of their children. I want to reassure them that has those resources. This government is committed to keeping Australians safe. We have a well-structured framework that is operating right now and will continue to see that bear fruit.
HOST: Now, it's not only in people's personal and social communications that they're bombarded with this material, it also intersects with political life in this country. And I'm wondering, as we turn our minds to the Voice Referendum, that it will be the first genuinely internet age referendum campaign waged in this country. How susceptible do you think that democratic exercise may be to the negative elements on the internet that we're talking about today?
ROWLAND: Digital campaigning is no longer in its infancy. It is actually quite advanced and we've seen that over a number of elections. But you are correct, this is going to be the first referendum run in this country. In the true digital age, that will bring a number of challenges. But again, I'm confident that given what we have seen, through the cooperation between the Australian Electoral Commission, between experts, from the responsibility of a Special Minister of State, from the Communications Department and representatives right across the government, the Attorney General's Department - we have had a good system in place to moderate that sort of behaviour. I think just going on the last Federal Election, many of your viewers would have seen the Electoral Commission being very forthright and being very quick in their responses to certain electoral advertising or information that was being put out there that was inaccurate. But that's one element. The second element I will focus on is an announcement that we made a short time ago, which is that this government is going to legislate in the area of misinformation and disinformation. We've had a voluntary industry code so far, but we are going to legislate so that the communications regulator actually has the power to enforce those codes.
HOST: Over and above the Electoral Commission, would that be in place, do you think, in time for the referendum?
ROWLAND: Well, I think we need to be clear. We have specifically said in relation to mis and disinformation that this won't apply to authorised electoral material, but it will be a really important element in getting to the heart of mis and disinformation. I think we need to be clear about what we're talking about here. This is information that is factually incorrect, but also is harmful. Where that type of information is harmful to our society, it actually damages our democracy as well, so we are doing this quite separately from the Voice Referendum. It is needed in Australia, but I am confident that we will have in place through the processes going on at the moment with implementation of the Voice and the experience we've had through the AEC in the past, that we will have a robust referendum later this year.
HOST: Yeah, understood. Thanks for clearing that up. What about traditional media? We know already that the government won't be funding the old fashioned pamphleteers in referendum. But have you given any thought to whether public broadcasters should allocate free time as they do in election campaigns, to respective ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns?

ROWLAND: We'll be taking our advice from that on the experts who have been set up to advise on how this will be structured. And that will necessarily involve Special Minister of State, Attorney General, the Minister for Indigenous Australians and myself. But I think in all these matters we should take our advice from the Advisory Group that's been put together.
HOST: All right, well, we'll keep across that and await further updates. Michelle Rowland, thanks so much for talking to us today. Safer Internet day.
ROWLAND: Pleasure.