Interview with Michael Rowland, ABC News Breakfast

MICHAEL ROWLAND, HOST: Let’s turn to Federal politics now, and the Federal Government is announcing new powers aimed at fighting misinformation and disinformation online and holding digital platforms to account. To tell us more, we’re joined by the Communications Minister, Michelle Rowland. Minister, good morning. You didn’t stay up until 4 o’clock watching this tennis game, did you?
MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: No, Michael, that would be inconsistent with my sleep wellness pattern.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Well answered. So, tell us about these new powers about to be given to the Australian Communications and Media Authority in dealing with these tech giants.
MICHELLE ROWLAND: Well, Michael, as your viewers will be well aware, so many Australians now use online platforms to obtain information and news, to communicate with business, and connect with family and friends. But unfortunately that online environment also brings the risk of misinformation. The industry as a set of participants has developed a current voluntary code, but what we are doing is seeking to keep Australians safe by ensuring the industry adheres to what they have agreed to in that code.
What this will mean is giving our communications regulator, the ACMA, powers for information gathering, for increased transparency and ensuring that the platforms actually adhere to what they commit to doing in their industry code. We will consult on draft legislation and we expect to have consultation completed by the middle of this year, and certainly to legislate thereafter.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Self-regulation is fantastic in principle, but if it doesn’t work regarding these tech giants, what powers will the government have to go after them further?
MICHELLE ROWLAND: Similar to those that already exist for the ACMA in the telco and broadcasting sectors, the ACMA will have the ability to devise new standards, enforce them, and to have penalties as well. This is certainly not a novel framework. It is a co-regulatory structure that is well established in Australia and has served consumers well. The Government considers that it is high time that we have a similar system applying in the online space. We have taken a graduated approach. We have been consultative with industry and we will continue to be consultative as we devise this exposure draft and seek comments on that.
But co-regulation certainly does require a strong regulatory backstop. The key here always is about keeping Australians safe, and we know that unfortunately misinformation has the potential to cause great harms, including harms to social order and threats to our democracy.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: A huge threat – both misinformation and disinformation. As Minister, what’s your view on how tech giants like Twitter, like Facebook are dealing with this by self-regulation at the moment?
MICHELLE ROWLAND: Well, it’s pleasing to see that the industry has devised that code. And if you step back to when this was initially recommended by the ACCC in its Digital Platforms Inquiry, the industry has, in fact, moved a long way. And some of that has been due to elements such as the pandemic. But I think it’s important to acknowledge the work that the industry has done, but also the work that the regulator has done working with them.
The Government considers that it’s time that we empower the regulator to ensure that the platforms do what they say they are going to do under this Code. And, again, Michael, this always comes back to keeping Australians safe. The technologies that are employed by the digital platforms are varied. They include artificial intelligence and consumer complaints. But, again, we need to make sure that all of those elements are working properly. And ultimately this is about making sure that misinformation and disinformation is kept to a minimum.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. Talking about one of the big issues all Australians will face this year – that is voting on the referendum to establish an Indigenous Voice to Parliament – how worried are you, Minister, that – and there’s plenty of it out there already – misinformation, disinformation – surrounding the Voice is going to muddy the waters ahead of the referendum?
MICHELLE ROWLAND: We are well aware that this is a serious issue that Australians will be participating in this referendum and we want to have the best possible information. But I would stress that whilst obviously it is really important to ensure that misinformation and disinformation is dealt with, we are pursuing this as a Government because this is part of our longer-term agenda across the whole sphere of misinformation.
But certainly we have expert working groups examining those specific issues. We have our relevant Ministers, including for Indigenous Australians and the Attorney-General and the Special Minister of State and his involvement with the Electoral Commission all examining these matters. Of course, it doesn’t matter what kind of information is out there we want to ensure that it is information that does not cause harm to the community in any form.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. And one way you could do this is to – as has been the case with previous referendums – send out pamphlets to each household, one advocating a yes vote, one advocating a no vote. The Government is shying away from that. I would have thought in this age of disinformation and misinformation, shouldn’t you approach voters with these pamphlets to avoid all that potential muddying of the waters?
MICHELLE ROWLAND: Well, the Government’s made clear our reasons in this regard. But we are confident that Australians will inform themselves and will have the ability to make an informed judgement once the referendum arises.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay, but why aren’t you putting out those pamphlets?
MICHELLE ROWLAND: Well, we consider that the role here in terms of the efficacy of this referendum is best served by the decision that we have taken. I am also confident based on the advice that’s been given by our expert panels in this area that we will have a robust referendum.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. Just one other issue before you go – one of our other top stories this morning – this Productivity Commission report which is not great in terms of Australia’s literacy and numeracy levels, pointing to serious ongoing problems with our education system. Your colleague, the Education Minister Jason Clare, says it’s not good enough and serious reform is needed. What can the government do about this?
MICHELLE ROWLAND: Well, the Education Minister is absolutely right – you know, as a parent and as someone representing an electorate which is one of the youngest in Australia, parents expect their children to have basic maths and literacy skills when they leave school. And if that has been the failure to date, then clearly something needs to change.
So that is why our Education Minister and our Government is taking the steps that we are to ensure that the States and the Commonwealth are brought together, that there is that accountability and transparency and that we do have reform that sees changes in these areas. I think that the majority – the vast majority – of Australians would be well aware that this is completely unacceptable and that we need to get on top of this urgently. That’s exactly what our Minister is doing.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. Minister, appreciate your time this morning. Thanks for joining us.