Interview with Greg Jennett, ABC News Australia, Afternoon Briefing

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Now, long after the Voice Referendum has passed – and not connected with the referendum at all – the government will coincidentally move on a bill that seeks to control the amount of misinformation circulating on social media. The focus of this proposed law will be misinformation which is deemed unsafe. We’ve heard plenty of claims from the opposition about what’s wrong with the draft version of it, so today we have the chance to put some of those claims and our own questions, of course, to Communications Minister Michelle Rowland.

Michelle Rowland, welcome back to Afternoon Briefing. It’s been more than a month since submissions on the misinformation draft bill closed. Are you yet persuaded to radically rethink the definition of “misinformation” in the face of persistent criticism that it borders on censorship?

MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: As a starting point, this government is very alive to the threats that are posed by harmful mis and disinformation online. 70 per cent of Australians are alive to that as well – the speed, the scale and the scope of mis and disinformation is something that regulators around the world are grappling with.

We announced at the beginning of the year that we would be legislating in this area. We issued an exposure draft in June, called for submissions – actually extended that submission time frame as well. Currently, we are looking at the suggestions and engaging with organisations. I personally have been engaging with a number of faith groups, for example, because this is important to get it right. The whole point of this exposure draft is to balance the competing interests that we have here but, above all, it’s about keeping Australians safe online.

JENNETT: As ever with these things, it’s not the ends but the means that become contestable or argued fervently. The central problem, I suppose, is you’re trying to codify with certainty assertions that, I suppose, are contested all the way to the end. Even arbiters appointed to make rulings on these things don’t always agree on them. We had the recent live example, I suppose, of the Uluru Statement being one page or 26 pages. We won’t go into the merits of that. But do you accept that it is practically impossible to land a definition that is not contested here?

ROWLAND: The starting point here is the industry already has a voluntary code in place that deals with mis and disinformation. This defines what it is and what systems and processes they will undertake in order to ensure they adhere to their own policies.

We’ve had successive reviews by Australian regulators: the ACCC has looked into this for many years in its digital platforms inquiry; the ACMA has looked into the voracity of this code. What we are seeking to do here is establish a very graduated response that is also consistent with how Australia regulates in this area overall.


ROWLAND: That is, we ask industry to develop a code. If the code is found to need further effectiveness, then that can be registered. That is what we are seeking to do here.

JENNETT: It’s pretty likely, though, that the ACMA is going to be interventionist here by virtue of decisions that the platforms have made about their own businesses. The platform formerly known as Twitter, now called X, has deliberately decided to physically vacate Australian offices and operate overseas, not always responsive. That makes it more likely, doesn’t it, that ACMA, not as a last resort, but as interventionist decision, will set and impose those industry standards?

ROWLAND: I think you highlight two important points: the first is that the platforms themselves moderate their content every minute of every day. And in Australia there is a voluntary code that goes to that. What we are seeking to do is have regulatory oversight of their systems and processes – not of individual pieces of content; it is purely concerned with how the actual platforms are performing against their own standards.

JENNETT: But what if they’re not engaging? What if they’re not cooperating?

ROWLAND: That is important for the second point, which again highlights why it is so important to have regulatory oversight here. For some months now both myself and the eSafety Commissioner and others have been concerned about that withdrawal of Australian staff in some platforms, including the platform formerly known as Twitter, and their ability to abide by Australian law. That remains an area of great concern and it’s one of the concerns that has been raised with why we need to have extra powers in this area to make sure that the platforms are doing what they say they’re going to do. Because if they don’t have staff in country – people who can respond to complaints, for example – then that is a serious issue.

JENNETT: All right. Can we clear up a couple of doubts that are circulating in arguments around the draft bill. Mainstream media journalism, protected or not? Of course, many run news through the social media platform. I think Anne Twomey for one has questioned whether you can unscramble that egg. Are they absolutely protected, mainstream journalism?

ROWLAND: Mainstream journalism, professional journalism, will be excluded from this regime. That is because they are already regulated under other components, including through the Press Council and other standards. Now, Professor Twomey makes some good points in her submission and, again, that’s the whole point of having this exposure draft.

As she highlights, it does depend on how these definitions are framed in order to ensure that mainstream medium is not covered. That is absolutely what will be contained in this bill – that professional news journalism will not be covered.

JENNETT: Okay. A couple of points raised by your opposite number, David Coleman – authorised content by the Albanese Government can’t be misinformation, but criticisms of the Albanese Government by ordinary Australians can be. True or false?

ROWLAND: That is false because what is proposed here is to ensure that where there are professional government announcements – so official government announcements for matters such as emergencies, and these examples are given in the exposure draft and the guidelines – that they would be exempt, just as authorised election material would be exempt. That is clearly the intention here – to ensure that there is not overlap between other aspects of where these are already regulated.

I should be very clear here: this is all about not only keeping Australians safe; it is also continuing a policy that the previous government actually announced that itself would do. It is important that this government acts on the recommendations that have been given by successive regulators, but doing nothing is not an option in this area.

JENNETT: Okay, but there are alternative approaches, aren’t there? I mean, I point to the Senate Select Committee on Foreign Interference. Sure, it’s dealing with a different slice of the same problem in a way, but their approach requires social media firms to label, report and perhaps be audited by government directly and more often. That is an alternative approach to the one you’re adopting.

ROWLAND: Again, this is partly already contained in the industry code that’s already in place. Sometimes as the platforms decide they can choose to label particular items of information as false, for example, or they can choose to take down content. That is choices made by themselves. To be clear: we are talking about threats to Australians’ safety, to our national security, to our democracy, to our social cohesion. It’s important that we have this overarching framework that has a very graduated approach, that again says to industry, “we will hold you to account for your systems and processes that you yourself will have in place.”

JENNETT: All right. A quick one, Michelle Rowland, on another matter in your portfolio – I suppose it’s the flipside in some ways to arguments about the need for misinformation legislation, and that is age verification for online porn. You’re not favouring a legislated approach to that. Does that mean, though, practically it will never happen in this country and, if so, why are you comfortable with that?

ROWLAND: Well, firstly, it is deeply concerning to see in the important work that the eSafety Commissioner has done in developing this roadmap that very young children are being exposed to content that is not age appropriate. What is important here is that we act using the legislative levers that we have right now in the Online Safety Act. I should be clear: the eSafety Commissioner actually did not recommend mandating a particular technology for age verification at this time, noting that those technologies are still growing, they are immature, they still have a number of privacy and security implications. But in future they may well be developed. 

JENNETT: Okay, so you don’t rule it out forever?

ROWLAND: We are very focused on ensuring that we have that legislation not only implemented but we do it as a matter of urgency. That is why I have asked the eSafety Commissioner to undertake the next phase of industry code development, which specifically goes to technology - and not only addresses the platforms, but addresses the platforms in a way where many of your viewers would be alarmed to learn that some one-third of children are inadvertently viewing pornography through social media. That is an area of great concern. That is where we have levers right now to be able to do that.

Secondly, this process for an age verification road map was actually started before we had Online Safety Act in place. It’s important that we bed that down. We will take further considerations in future about what a trial, for example, would look like. That code process will be very useful in feeding into that.

JENNETT: Okay. Yeah, a number of countries are grappling with that very problem. Just finally, Australia Post Review. I know that’s pending from you. In the meantime, there’s a bid to increase the standard postage fee by about 30 cents. If approved on both fronts – you go through with your changes and the postage goes up – are you, in effect, telling people they’ll pay more and get slower deliveries for it?

ROWLAND: Well, around the world this is a problem that is being grappled with, again, by government-sponsored postal services. Increasing competition, the decline of letters are all contributing to a situation where Australia Post, as is on the public record, has actually recorded a significant loss, probably its first in I think around 15 years.


ROWLAND: It’s important for us not only to recognise that Australia Post is a valued institution, the levers available to government come in the area of postal pricing, so including that basic postal rate, delivery frequency, but also the number of retail outlets that are available. This is going to your first point, which is about increasing the price, and that will go through the normal ACCC processes.

But you asked a question about whether people will pay more and get something less frequently, I think the answer is twofold: firstly, the decline of letters has been really something that is incapable of being reversed. People are getting around two letters a week. What we need to ensure is that people receive their parcels on time as well as their letters, because that is where the high demand is. We need to also make sure that we’ve got that sustainable workforce there. We haven’t made any decisions in this area yet. We’re looking across the board at those options that are available to us.

But overall to answer your question: we want people to have the best service. We want them to have an Australia Post that responds to their needs. That’s why we’ve been undertaking these detailed consultations, and all of our decisions will be based on that.

JENNETT: All right. Well, I can assure you that we remain interested in all of that, as do our viewers, Michelle Rowland, which means we’ll get you back in the future once those decisions are made. Thanks for joining us.

ROWLAND: Pleasure.