Interview with Peter Fegan, 4BC Brisbane Drive

PETER FEGAN, HOST: I'm happy to say now that the Federal Communications Minister, Michelle Rowland joins me on the line. Minister, thank you for your time this afternoon.


FEGAN: What I would firstly say is, congratulations, or well done to the Federal Government on taking a stance here. I think this is a really, really, really positive thing that you are doing here. So well done, firstly.

But what I'd like to ask you, Minister, and if you could explain to our listeners, is what type of predatory behavior was being reported to you and what are some of the things that you are trying to stamp out? 

ROWLAND: Well, firstly, unfortunately, we see some three in four people using these dating apps or websites who've experienced some forms of what we call "technology-facilitated abuse". That can take the form of sexual harassment, abusive or threatening language, where people also use images as a form of abuse, stalking, so, it's a whole range of activities that no one wants to see, especially when we consider how prevalent online dating platforms are now; in fact, it's the most common way of meeting a partner in Australia.

It's that kind of behavior we have to deal with, as well as balancing the fact that these apps are very popular. Over the last few months since the roundtable, we've made extensive information requests to the platforms, most of whom are located overseas. They've been coming to Australia, but also engaging with us and our regulatory agencies, to actually probe what they're doing, what they can do better. I'm very pleased to announce today that we're taking new measures by having a voluntary code put in place, and this really will form the basis, we anticipate, of having a real lift in safety standards across the industry where there's real inconsistency in terms of what's being done and what safety measures are available.

FEGAN: Why make them voluntary measures, why give them the option? Can't we make them involuntary and make this as a standard practice?

ROWLAND: No, it's a good question. What we are trying to balance here is the fact that this is an innovative sector. We want to make sure that people can continue to use them if they so choose, but we want them to be used safely. So, we're giving the industry the opportunity to work together, to build on efforts, and again, I must commend the industry. Even since we announced the roundtable, we have seen a lift in those standards, we want to keep that momentum going. But I have made this very clear: we expect this to be in place by the middle of next year.

We are also having a strong input from existing agencies like our eSafety Commissioner. They are going to make sure they're involved in the code formulation process, so that it's fit for purpose, it actually has those desired results, but we are going to also report back expeditiously on whether it's having an impact. We can't have a situation where 75 per cent of these users are experiencing some sort of sexual violence.

That's the kind of environment we're dealing with here. It's innovative, we want people to continue to use and enjoy them, but we have to keep them safe.

FEGAN: Are they being receptive? Have these companies taken to the recommendations, has there been any pushback whatsoever? You would have to think, Minister, that there is no one out there that will take ‑ that wouldn't take a stance against this type of predatory behavior.

ROWLAND: Well, again, these are for‑profit companies. A lot of them work in different environments. They would obviously prefer to be subject to a standard sort of practice right across all of their international operations. But our first priority is keeping Australians safe, and that's why we've decided to go down this path. We want to examine all of these practices; we want them to be held accountable. And I should also note that prior to the interventions over the last few months, these dating apps had very little contact with the Australian Government or regulators or understood what was expected of them in the Australian context.

I think it's really important that we've had that engagement. We want to build on that. It’s really the collective responsibility across industry, government regulators, civil society as a whole, law enforcement agencies. We all have to do our part, and for this code to be formulated and put in place, we think that it will make a difference in terms of shedding those expectations, meeting those expectations. And look, it means that those platforms which can offer safety features at no extra charge, for example, they may well attract more clients, and may well become more popular than competitors.  Having those options for people, I think, could end up being a competitive advantage, and we look forward to the sector being involved in the formulation of this, and again, ultimately, it's about keeping Australians safe online.

FEGAN: Joining me on the line is the Federal Communications Minister, Michelle Rowland. She's explaining that the dating apps essentially here in Australia that we use, the Hinge, or Tinder, or whatever the case may be, have been put on notice by the Albanese Government, which is a very good move.

I just want to ask you this, Minister: I'm assuming - I'm making the assumption, you'll correct me if I'm wrong here, but if there is predatory behavior, it's not policed unless people reported, am I correct in saying that?

ROWLAND: That is unfortunately true, but we know that those dating apps also have a lot of data about the activity that's going on, and that's one of the areas that we want the code to look at. It shouldn't just be on the victim survivor to have that obligation to report. These dating apps are very sophisticated, they use a lot of artificial intelligence, so they should have some onus on them to do something if they notice that something is not right on their platforms.

But you also talk about complaints. We have found in our information requests, and also through our engagement with those advocacy groups, one of the big complaints was that there was nowhere for people to raise issues, or when they did raise them, they weren't either taken seriously or weren't acted on promptly.

They're the kinds of areas that we really want to lift, we really want improvements, and if we don't get that, then the dating apps are really clearly on notice. They will end up being subjected to further regulation if they can't get their own house in order.

FEGAN: Minister, before I do let you go, there's been a topic we've been discussing this afternoon, and that is the Voice to Parliament. Today is the last day that you can register to vote for the Referendum. The question I wanted to put to you, and it's a question I've put to a lot of Ministers within the Cabinet, do you understand the Voice in its entirety, and do you think that your boss, or the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, is doing a good job in selling the message?

ROWLAND: I understand what is sought to be achieved here, and I'll tell you why. I have found in barely a year or so since I've been Minister, where I've been making decisions about a quality of access to communications services, when you do engage with people who are impacted by your decisions, you make a big difference.

I have a target, a gap to close, I have Target 17, which is to have equal access to First Nations and non‑First Nations Australians. And when I came to this office, very privileged to do so, I looked for what progress had been made, and we didn't even have a baseline, so I established a Digital Inclusion Advisory Group of eminent experts in this area who are First Nations and non‑First Nations backgrounds, and I can tell you, we have devised excellent plans, excellent programs that are really catered to the needs of First Nations people.

We know that that gap between urban and very remote areas, for example, is very high. So, we've got a good roadmap just in over a year of having listened to people. And I think the Prime Minister is doing the job he needs to do in explaining to Australians what is at stake here, that we have an opportunity to make a difference. And this opportunity, let's face it, is only going to come around once –

FEGAN: But Minister, what happens if, on 14 October it is voted down? This is a key election promise from the Labor Government. This is a move by Anthony Albanese, Prime Minister, a very risky move. I mean anybody can see that this is a risky move. In my opinion, it is dividing the nation. That's the opinion of many people. At this stage the early polls suggest that it won't pass. Then what happens with Anthony Albanese and his leadership? Does the Cabinet stick by him, because this has huge ramifications for the Labor Government.

ROWLAND: We are looking to have a successful result on 14 October. Just like in any election, no one has handed anything to me as a candidate, or anything to Labor or to the Prime Minister as Labor leader. We need to make sure we go out there and prosecute our case ‑‑

FEGAN: But if it doesn't work, Minister, if it's voted down ‑‑

ROWLAND: I will say this: I have been out and about in my community, and people who know how I engage with my community is you need to change people's minds, one voter at a time.

FEGAN: Can you see how some Australians don't understand it though?

ROWLAND: A lot of people, I'll tell you, don't even know that the referendum's on yet. But people are starting to switch on now. There are a couple of weeks left to go. I'm engaging with as many people as possible. I was on the walk in Sydney yesterday, and I was quite buoyed by the amount of support that I think is out there.

But what is clear is that over the next few weeks, this is going to be a highly contested situation. It's been very rare that referenda have been successful in this country where there hasn't been bipartisan support. And I know that there is support between some members of the Liberal and National Parties who have come forward and have been campaigning. Eminent people, eminent Liberal figures, and I encourage more of that, because this isn't a question of party politics. This is a question about taking Australia forward, and we know that we can do more of the same and have the same results, or we can do better.

FEGAN: Minister, I really do appreciate your time this afternoon, and again, I must commend the government on its work to stop this predatory behavior. We'd love to get an update from you into the future. I appreciate your time this afternoon.

ROWLAND: Happy to do that, and thanks to you.