Interview with Nick McCallum, Heidi Murphy and Darren Jones, 3AW Sunday Morning

NICK MCCALLUM, HOST: Unfortunately, with social media, it's such a new proposition and the law has not kept up with social media. And it's a lot more difficult with social media because so many people on social media are anonymous.

HEIDI MURPHY, HOST: It's not quite so new anymore. It's just that it's evolving in so many different directions that the legislation, the regulations, cannot keep up with it, or probably have made no efforts to keep up with it. And now the horse is already long bolted.

MCCALLUM: And we don't know most of the time, or half the time at least, who the person is that is actually making the outrageous allegation. And then even if you could track them down, you'd find out it's someone who could not even dream of paying for any form of slander cost.

MURPHY: There'd be ways of tracking down.

MCCALLUM: Yeah, I'm not sure it's that easy.

MURPHY: Well, no, you and I couldn't do it, but there'll be some experts who can -

DARREN JONES, HOST: Well, let's ask for the Minister for Communications. The Honourable Michelle Rowland MP joins us.

Michelle, thanks for joining us. It's very tough to police something that's published on one of the social media platforms, isn't it?

MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: It certainly is, but it doesn't mean that it's not an important issue, particularly when we're talking about mis and disinformation that's really capable of being a threat to the safety and well-being of Australia. So, this is why -

MCCALLUM: Minister, I was going to ask, just pick you up on that first line. Who, under this legislation, who will determine if it's misinformation or disinformation?

ROWLAND: Well, this is a matter of policing the behaviour of the digital platforms. Our regulator – the Australian Communications and Media Authority – won't be determining what is basically in and out. What it will be determining is what kind of mis and disinformation is being actually regulated by the platforms themselves.

So, to give you some context for this, part of your discussion just then, I think, goes to the issues of at what layer do you regulate this? At what layer is it most effective? Now, the industry currently has a voluntary code about how it does police its own platforms. In some cases, it uses artificial intelligence, it can identify where there's non-human intervention, like bots, for example, it can monitor traffic.

But the issue here is it can spread so fast and it's difficult to rein in. But we're not going to be – and I want to make it very clear for you and your listeners – we're not going to be looking at individual pieces of content and determining whether or not they are mis or disinformation.

This is about using new powers of transparency and record-keeping to hold the platforms to account for what they say they are going to do. So, for example, the terms of service of many of these digital platforms, the ones who are covered by the code, say that they will monitor what is mis and disinformation. We are holding them to account, but we're also going to have the ability for more graduated codes and standard-making powers with significant fines if they don't do what they say they're going to do.

MURPHY: Look, Minister, what is your power lever for holding them to account? If they just say, 'Hm, nah.'

ROWLAND: Well, it's twofold and, in fact, this is one of the reasons why we have announced today that we are undertaking a public consultation on this draft law, because it's really important to balance freedom of speech, the ability and utilisation of technology against those harms.

So, what this will do, it will introduce new information gathering and record-keeping powers, so that we've got transparency around the behaviour of the platforms themselves. And this is the important part: it's about the platforms. So, what we will do is we'll have this graduated regulatory framework. We know that self-regulation in the industry is there already, and we've always been a country that's operated in this environment on a co-regulatory framework, working with the industry. But where that's not enough, we've got regulatory powers to step in.

MCCALLUM: But what powers do you have? That's the point.

MURPHY: Because they can ignore you, can't they?

MCCALLUM: If it's a major international company and a relatively small country like Australia tries to implement stuff on them, what power do you have to actually do it?

ROWLAND: Well, we will have powers. There actually will be powers under this new law and they will apply to those platforms. And in addition, they have very significant fines for failures to comply with these new powers. And just to give you a sense of that, for a breach of a registered code, it will be nearly $3 million or 2 per cent of global turnover. And we know that in many cases, large fines like this are not often enforced, but they are there as a very strong incentive and they also demonstrate how serious we are about compliance with this.

MCCALLUM: But, once again, going back to the question, though, if, say, it's a huge company that's based in America and the Australian government fines it 3 million, say, for instance, how do you have the power to do that to a big American company? Can the big American company just ignore you and say, we're not going to operate in Australia?

ROWLAND: Well, just to be clear, it's common for Australian regulators to commence proceedings against foreign entities. For conduct that falls outside Australia -

MURPHY: Is it ever successful?

ROWLAND: As long as it has that connection to Australia. Now, there have not been laws in this country that deal with this issue at this scale before, and we know that there can be jurisdictional challenges. Foreign entities like digital platforms, who conduct business in Australia generally have the incentive to participate in domestic proceedings and comply with enforcement actions. But the important thing here is, for the first time, this will mean that we have an Australian regulator with a very clear set of rules under Australian law, with very clear sanctions that are capable of being applied. And again, I just point out, this is about the behaviour of the digital platforms.

MCCALLUM: But Australia is small fry for a huge American digital company. So, could an American digital company say, for instance, "you know what, we're not going to deal with Australia anymore, we're going to cut off Australia." That's not what you want, is it?

ROWLAND: That is a matter for those platforms. And we saw that happen a few years ago with Facebook, for example, where it decided that in light of some new laws that were being proposed, that it would take action on that front.

The Australian Government's intention here is clear. This is about doing whatever we can, including introducing new laws to keep Australians safe. We want to ensure that Australians are not subjected to mis and disinformation that can harm us. And let's be clear about the kind of harm we're talking about here. This can be misinformation that actually results in people ignoring strong health advice. It can be misinformation that actually endangers lives by saying that a predicted pathway of a bushfire, for example, is going in another direction by publishing a fake map with emergency services branding. That is exactly the kind of behaviour that we are seeking to address with these new laws.

JONES: Interesting. Michelle, thank you very much for joining us on a Sunday morning. Enjoy the rest of your day.