Interview with Laura Jayes, Sky News

LAURA JAYES, HOST:  The Federal Government is working to fight an increasing amount of misinformation found online. Labor is planning to introduce new laws that will extend the power of Australia’s communications watchdog. Under the new legislation, platforms will be held accountable for the content you put out. The question is, where is that line? How far should the Government go?

Joining me live now is the Communications Minister Michelle Rowland. What is the problem you are trying to solve here?

MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS:  Laura, as I’m sure many of your viewers will know, we all utilise social media platforms these days, including for business, for staying in touch and for gathering information about news content and so forth. The problem, as your viewers will be scrolling through, often they will come to information that they question whether that is accurate, whether it is correct or is there something about it that’s not quite right.

The scale, the scope and the speed of the spread of mis and disinformation is a big issue, and I think we need to be very clear, firstly, about what misinformation is. It’s not about someone having a different opinion to you. It’s not about news content. It’s not about authorised electoral content. It’s about information that is out there that is verifiably false and can cause harm. And we want to ensure that platforms do everything that they can to minimise that in order to keep Australians safe.

JAYES: Okay. So what have you seen that worries you?

ROWLAND: I think there’s two things. Firstly, as I said, it’s that scale and the scope and the speed of it being able to get out there. And, again, it’s a global problem. We’re seeing this right around the world. We’re seeing other jurisdictions propose solutions to deal with that. But also there have been instances – and I’ll give you one real life case, for example, at the beginning of the pandemic, misinformation out there that 5G technology caused COVID, for example. We had some people taking it upon themselves to damage critical communications infrastructure. That causes harm to people, it causes civil unrest, it’s a safety issue for people not being able to use mobile telephony.

But I think the key thing here is that the platforms have signed up to a voluntary industry code to do certain things to minimise that amount of misinformation actually are held to account for what they say they will do. And that is what we propose to do with these new laws – to give our regulator the backstop powers and teeth to make sure that happens.

JAYES: Yeah, that is one of the more obvious examples, and perhaps one of the easier ones. But when you get into opinion, that’s a lot more difficult, isn’t it? An individual user is saying, “You know, I heard something,” and then posting about that. So who decides what is disinformation and misinformation?

ROWLAND: Well, it’s not going to be me as Minister; it’s not going to be the Government. It is going to be the platforms utilising transparent mechanisms like fact checking, AI, examining, for example, the amount of shares and traffic that goes on with particular algorithms.

So I think it’s important to note the platforms already utilise a lot of this technology and they were very alive to it during the pandemic. But it’s certainly is not about clear opinion. Again, it needs to have that element of causing harm. And that’s very clear in the Code, and that is what our regulator will be focused on as well.

JAYES: Okay, so, on opinion, I mean, it will be decided by ACMA. So do you think that opinion needs to be more clearly labelled as opinion or will ACMA also be regulating opinion?

ROWLAND: To be clear: it won’t be the ACMA that is making decisions about what is mis and disinformation; it’s about the platforms identifying content that may cause harm because it is mis or disinformation. So it’s about the platforms doing that task.

JAYES: So the big tech companies like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, do you feel uncomfortable with them also being the ones who decide what is misinformation, what is disinformation, what is harmful, what is not?

ROWLAND: I think is it a vexed area, and I think, again, the role of Government, the role of industry and the role of regulators need to be very clear.

JAYES: Yeah.

ROWLAND: Whilst this is an always-evolving environment and we have become so used to utilising these platforms, we do have to make sure that the role of Government is very clear. And that is about keeping Australians safe from harm. The regulator’s role needs to be very clear – that it is not about censorship, it is not about assessing individual pieces of content; it’s about holding those platforms to account for the things they give undertakings to do.

JAYES: Okay. So the issue at the moment, is, with the big tech companies, is that they change their policies. They change their mechanisms and they can take down content really it seems like on a whim. Can you do anything to stop that, because they change their internal policies and then we’re kind of beholden to it.

ROWLAND: I think there’s probably two sides to that. Firstly, there are a lot of complaints that people make about where they have reported misinformation and the platforms have been slow to act as well and other cases –

JAYES: ACMA is slow as well, aren’t they? At the moment they take about 6 to 12 months to investigate complaints.

ROWLAND: Well, to be – again, to be clear, the ACMA doesn’t have a role at the moment in enforcing that voluntary code.

JAYES: Yeah, okay.

ROWLAND: But certainly what we are proposing to do is have a draft, an exposure draft, of this legislation. I think it’s very important that we have the resources for the regulator to give effect to those laws. There’s no point having excellent laws in place if they’re not capable of being enforced.

JAYES: Yeah.

ROWLAND: But I take your point about it’s not as though you can negotiate with the platforms about the terms of service. But they do need to be transparent, and the regulator will hold them to account for being transparent. They do need to provide examples of recordkeeping where they have undertaken fact-checking, where they have utilised, for example, artificial intelligence to determine whether something has been automatically bot-generated. In a lot of cases, that is the course of misinformation. So the role of the regulator will be very clear. It is about holding the platforms to account for the measures they have undertaken to do in the code.

JAYES: My point with ACMA taking 6 to 12 months to come back with an investigation at the moment is that, of course, as a mainstream media service we follow – we come under ACMA. And when there’s complaints made, they take a long time to investigate that. So if they’ve got a much bigger remit, I mean, is this going to slow things down? How much more money are you going to throw at ACMA for resources?

ROWLAND: You make an excellent point on two fronts: the first is you as a professional journalist and broadcasters are both subject to rules, regulatory obligations for accuracy and adherence to codes. What we are seeking to do with this legislation is to bring the online platforms in line with that, so level the playing field across the comms sector. But, again, as you point out, that sort of merit-based assessment that the ACMA does in relation to a complaint in the broadcasting space, for example, it will be different to what is being undertaken in terms of its remit of the social media platforms and their code. They will be looking specifically at how the platforms are adhering to their own code of practice.

JAYES: Okay.

ROWLAND: So it’s not individual complaints that are made; it’s an ongoing monitoring and compliance, and in the event that the ACMA finds that certain platforms are failing to meet those obligations, then there’s a graduated set of penalties for that. And, again, this is subject to the exposure draft, but certainly that sort of penalty regime, notification and penalty regime, would be in line with the telco and broadcasting sectors. And I think that’s important.

JAYES: What about TikTok? Are you worried about TikTok? I mean, I’m not on TikTok, but everyone a little bit younger than me seems to be. And it is a hugely influential platform. America is worried that TikTok is being used, actually, to spy on its citizens and they’re pointing the finger at China. Do you share those concerns?

ROWLAND: The worries come in a couple of aspects, and joint parliamentary committees have looked at this in the past and are continuing to look at this. I think the worry comes probably on three fronts: firstly, the nature of the content that is there. And bear in mind, too, TikTok is actually a signatory to the platform code as well. So the regulator that will have oversight in that regard, which will be a good thing. Secondly, there’s the national security and privacy aspects that have been looked at by various elements of the Parliament. And the third is influencers and sometimes those sorts of harms that come with that content. And just to give you some examples, you would have heard – many of your viewers would have heard – diabetes medication that people are actually apparently taking for weight loss. There’s now a lack of supply in Australia because of that.

There’s been unfortunately a lot of views put out there about female health, which, you know, does not appear to have a lot of medical input. But, again, we have different mechanisms that are very alive to dealing with that under the TGA and some of the other regulatory bodies in the health space. Because whilst I recognise, yes, TikTok comes in that ambit of communications, the subject matter is about health, and that is regulated separately.

But certainly when you say it’s a worry, the Government and my colleagues, including the Minister for Health, we are very much alive – the Minister for Home Affairs when it comes to national security, we are very much alive to this. Our agencies are very much alive to this as well.

JAYES: Okay. So it’s on your radar?

ROWLAND: It certainly is.

JAYES: Okay. Let me ask you one last question: Kevin Rudd is the Chairman of Australians for a Murdoch Royal Commission. He’s now been appointed the US Ambassador as well. Can he maintain that previous role, do you think?

ROWLAND: Well, I expect – and not being an expert on the kinds of positions that one needs to relinquish when they go into these diplomatic posts - I expect that there will be a process of deciding what elements of his role as our excellent new ambassador will need to be foregone. And I expect that that will be done in a very professional way, and it won’t be the first time that that is done.

JAYES: Okay. Even if you’re not just looking at the letter, if you’re going to be a diplomat, do you think, on the face of it, that maintaining that role would fall under that remit of being a diplomat?

ROWLAND: I think that there will surely be precedents for this that I’m not aware of. But certainly Kevin Rudd will execute his role in an objective, professional and impartial way.

JAYES: Okay. Michelle Rowland, thanks so much for your time.