Interview with Sarah McDonald, ABC Sydney Mornings

SARAH MACDONALD, HOST: Labor is launching a Joint Parliamentary Inquiry into the influence of social media on society and life in Australia. MPs will grill tech executives about the impact of TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and X on our mental health, on public debates, on Australian journalism. And Meta has announced it would stop funding media companies for use of their articles, and this may mean more misinformation and disinformation rather than news.
The Minister for Communications is Michelle Rowland - and joins me now on ABC Radio Sydney. Good morning.
MACDONALD: Good morning. Are you on social media yourself?

ROWLAND: I certainly am. And I think that many of your listeners will know that social media is now quite a pervasive part of everyday life. It does have many positive implications, ranging from being able to stay in touch, enabling people to run small businesses and engaging with government. So, it's become that unavoidable trading partner. 

But at the same time, social media has a civic responsibility to its users. The decisions and actions of social media companies over the last few months - and you particularly highlight Meta's decision to withdraw from paying for news in Australia - really demonstrates the negative impacts that these companies can have on our society. And that's the reason why this announcement is being made. It's around the need of these social media companies to be more transparent and accountable to the Australian public. And this will be an important job of Parliament to scrutinise and to elevate those important issues.
MACDONALD: Who would you like to appear? Do you want, say, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk? 

ROWLAND: I will leave that to the Committee processes. It's important to note that it won't be myself as Minister on this Committee, but this is a Joint Committee, so it goes across the Parliament - the Senate and the House of Representatives. And we’ve outlined today some of the matters that the Government expects the Committee will examine and report on. But there are a range of other issues that Parliamentarians and members of that Committee may have as well. 

It's important that this not only be broad-ranging, but understands that, at the core of this, is about the fact that whilst there are many positives, there are also some particularly negative ones that go to the health of our democracy – including the refusal by Meta to pay for news any longer in Australia.
MACDONALD: Yeah, I want to get to that in just a moment. But will the Committee be able to force people or compel people who don't live in this country, such as these tech giants, to appear? 

ROWLAND: Well, there are rules around the Committee hearing process, and whilst I don't want to get ahead of that now, we know that these Committees have chosen to call in the past people who rank quite highly in individual organisations. And, again, I don't want to pre-empt what their decisions might be, but I think it's safe to say that the focus of the Committee will be to get to the core of people who are making these decisions. 

MACDONALD: Yes, that's what we'd love to know, how they're making them. Michelle Rowland is with us, the Communications Minister. Nick says: I found it easy to get off social media, got off Facebook five years ago. I read a lot more papers and magazines now and it makes me feel less stressed.’ You mentioned this Meta withdrawing from paying for news. The ACCC, I think, is going to advise whether you can force Meta to negotiate payments to news outlets for use of content. But the other thing is, they're just saying, well, we won't have any news at all if you do that. 

ROWLAND: Well, indeed, and we've seen this is the playbook that Meta has around the world. We've been closely engaged as Government with our Canadian counterparts who are going through this process at the moment. But we have, of course, in Australia, the News Media Bargaining Code. The ACCC - since Meta's announcement in late February, early March - has been tasked with doing the work that it's required to do under that law. It's doing that right now and will provide recommendations to Government. 

Of course, there are other actions that the Government is taking and actively considering, and part of this around the harms that are caused by social media. So, we're doing this in a very cross government way with the Online Harms Ministers. And I think in recent weeks, many of your listeners will be attuned to some of the issues about undermining gender equality as a result of social media, particularly some of these algorithmic recommender systems that push content that perpetuate these harmful gender stereotypes. There's also hate speech that's proliferated on digital platforms and scams, so we have streams of work across all of these areas. But I think what this Committee will do will be to enable the Parliament as a whole to do its job in scrutinising these behaviours, make recommendations and I think that they will also feed into what will be a solid basis for reform going forward.
MACDONALD: Yes. So, you're going to look at the algorithms and the impact this has on, say, inciting religious division and mental health. It's kind of this toxic mix that can happen. 

ROWLAND: It certainly has been. And we know that these are corporate decisions that are made by these platforms. And whilst they will say that they are not actually generating content, they certainly are playing a role in what gets presented. And it's that that can be particularly harmful – 

MACDONALD: So, are you saying, though, that you think there's corporate decisions to increase hate and whip up division on social media? 
ROWLAND: What I'm saying is we have seen algorithms and recommender systems being used in a way that serves up particular content. The issue here is the opaque nature of that. There is a lack of accountability and a lack of visibility around that. But at the same time too, we have seen what some of those implications are. And part of those are around the dialling down of certain content, content that Meta, for example, deems to be political or news. Many of your listeners will note that they have been dialled down on their social media feeds. So, we know that that is happening right now as a result of the decisions that are being made by these corporations. The issue here is that we want to have transparency and accountability in how that is being done. 

MACDONALD: Self regulation doesn't seem to work, does it? 

ROWLAND:  Well, we even have at the moment, as you know, a law in place regarding the News Media Bargaining Code and the Online Safety Act as well. But this is an area that goes to not only the implementation of those laws, but also any other company in Australia or operating in Australia is required to abide by Australian law, but also Australian expectations. And this is the nub of what this Committee will be looking at. 

The counterfactual is that government and regulators should do nothing. And we know that around the world, governments and regulators are grappling with these issues. Australia needs to do the same. And in particular, at a time when we're faced with Meta withdrawing from paying for news, what that means for our democracy and our institutions and economy overall is one that we need to consider very carefully.
MACDONALD: Michelle Rowland is here as this Joint Committee will begin an investigation into social media. She's the Communications Minister, it will report to her. You announced a pilot of age verification technology to access things such as porn. Should that be on all social media, not just the porn that people are seeing? 

ROWLAND: What we're looking at here with funding this trial through the Budget is that it may have different use scenarios. So, for example, there are already, of course, laws in place about purchasing alcohol, for example. And what other scenarios can it be effective in? We know there's a range of technologies in the market already. They include identity verifiers and age estimators based on the type of content that users are viewing. So, this pilot will also complement and work closely with the role that the eSafety Commissioner has at the moment around devising codes about content that is age inappropriate. And that not only includes pornography, that can include, for example, video games that might be particularly violent or otherwise harmful. So, we're working closely with eSafety in that and we'll do as we form the parameters of that trial.
MACDONALD: The Opposition wants age verification technology and says we could start doing it straight away. 

ROWLAND: Well, it's very clear that part of this does involve needing to undertake test scenarios. And also we have an Online Safety Act that was actually passed under the previous government, which also has a process for setting out the rules of behaviour that apply with regards to age inappropriate content. So, we are following implementation of that. 

We know that this is an area that is rapidly developing and eSafety has given good guidance about how this can complement but also enhance not only the codes process but also the implementation and the enforcement of rules around age verification. So, this is not something that you pick up off a shelf. This needs to be properly tested for efficacy, privacy, for security as well. And working with eSafety and the current powers that they have under the Online Safety Act is the best way to do that.
MACDONALD: Before I let you go, several Labor MP's are speaking out against the Government's new gas policy which sets out a plan for further investment and a life for gas through to 2050. Some say they've been blindsided by this decision and we need to be speeding up the transition away from fossil fuels, not prolonging their life. 

ROWLAND: We all know, to meet our climate targets, we need more renewables and for the moment we need gas to help us to get there. So, this is why this gas strategy is so important. Gas will be needed to 2050 and beyond. Its role is changing, but it will certainly be an important enabler of the transition to Net Zero. And, I also note, that this is really the first time that the Commonwealth has carefully examined about how the use of gas can be consisted with consistent with those Net Zero targets. And it's found that it can be. So, it's important to provide energy security through gas. We know that coal is retiring, we know that more renewables are coming online. But in the meantime, we do need to have that energy security that's provided through gas. 

MACDONALD: But why do we need to expand gas? 

ROWLAND: Well, the important thing here is that we need to account not only for the increase in renewables, but also as coal comes offline, we need to respond to that gap. This gas-powered generation actually helps firm up renewables. It actually helps to reach that 2030 target. It's needed for manufacturing. It's needed to help move up the value chain for the industries that we really want to develop, like critical minerals. So, it has that role as our economy transitions. But the sooner we get to 100% renewable energy, the better. But in the meantime, gas is an important enabler to help us get there.