Interview with Thomas Oriti, ABC News Radio

THOMAS ORITI, HOST: Social media companies will be put under the microscope as the Federal Government announces it will establish a Parliamentary Committee. Now, this Committee will allow politicians to examine and report on the influence and impact of social media on society. There are concerns that platforms like Facebook X or Twitter, TikTok - they're not doing enough to stop scammers and reduce harmful content and are instead focused on making it harder to access trusted news sources. Michelle Rowland is the Federal Minister for Communications who joins us now. Minister, good morning. Thank you for your time.

ORITI: I mentioned a few of the issues there, but what are you hoping to achieve with this Parliamentary Committee?
ROWLAND: The key here is around transparency and accountability. We know that social media is a part of everyday life, has many positive implications for Australians and small businesses, and it's become an unavoidable trading partner for millions of Australians. But at the same time, social media has a civic responsibility to its Australian users and to our society more broadly.
And the decisions that have been made by social media platforms in recent months, and I particularly look at Meta's decision to withdraw from paying for news in Australia, can really demonstrate the wide-ranging negative impacts, not only on our economy, but also on our democratic institutions. So, it's important here for the Parliament to do its job. Parliament works at its best when it elevates these important issues and where it scrutinises them. And that's why we are making this announcement.
ORITI: I want to unpack a few of the issues you've just mentioned there. But first, you mentioned a moment ago that social media has a civic duty. I'm just interested to know, let's not forget as well that X, formerly known as Twitter, is now owned by one pretty prominent man in the world. Do you think Elon Musk sees it that way? That he put all these billions of dollars into a platform because he had a civic duty? 

ROWLAND: I think the issue here is not necessarily about individuals. It's about the way in which these platforms operate, the opaque nature in which content is served up –

ORITI: Forgive me, an individual is a very, very prominent part of that makeup, though. 

ROWLAND: With one of these very prominent platforms, individuals certainly are. And the decisions made by these social media platforms are done in ways that are not readily apparent to the public and can have negative consequences. And I look at, for example, some of the undermining of gender equality through deep fakes and algorithmic recommender systems that are pushing content from influencers. You look at the hate speech that is being proliferated on digital platforms, and also major issues around scams. These are all areas where any other corporation would be expected not only to comply with Australian law, but would have what Australians normally refer to as a social licence to operate.
I think that decent-minded Australians, whilst we appreciate that social media has had a very liberating effect and a very positive effect on people who might otherwise be excluded or not have the capacity to engage in other ways, as a Government, we need to recognise the harms that are being caused, but also the get to the bottom of what is causing them. And this is the reason for this inquiry being instituted.
ORITI: Minister, you mentioned there a moment ago, one of your concerns about these platforms, whether it is X or Facebook or TikTok, is that they're opaque, in your words. And that makes me want to ask you about this issue around algorithms. So, the systems that these platforms use to recommend content to users – algorithms - I understand, is the focus of this inquiry. What are you worried about, specifically, when it comes to those algorithms? 

ROWLAND: Well, there's two aspects here. The first is the types of content and the types of recommendations that are being made, particularly to vulnerable people and those who can be influenced to have certain perceptions. And I'm thinking in particular here, at some of the misogynistic rubbish that is being served up, particularly to young men, and that's been an area of focus in particular over recent weeks –and rightly so.
But also in relation to the dialling down of particular contents. We have seen the dialling down of what is termed political content on some of Meta's platforms, what they have deemed to be content that they don't wish for people to see I think Australians are fair minded, they understand that they are utilising these systems, but it is not apparent to them the harms that are potentially caused by these actions. And, again, I come back to the issue of news and Meta's decision to withdraw from paying use in Australia. This is an aspect that will have a fundamental impact on our democratic institutions.
ORITI: Why is that, overall, why is that? What is your concern about these, about Meta sort of walking away from those deals with news publishers under the News Media Bargaining Code later this year. Why are the stakes so high there? 

ROWLAND: Because this is the way in which most Australians now either consume news or have a preference to consume news– is through the platforms. Parliament determined some years ago that a regime would be instituted, passed a law that said, if social media platforms are utilising news content of publishers, then they should pay for that content. And what is happening here is undermining news leaves a vacuum of mis and disinformation, that digital detritus, as opposed to public interest journalism, which is accountable to particular standards.

What is at stake here is the sustainability of the information ecosystem. Australians rely and our democracy relies on news that is trustworthy, that is informative, and that is available. And that is what Meta's decision to withdraw from news actually threatens.

ORITI: A couple of issues I want to discuss with you, Minister, before we move on, though. This fight with X over in order to take down the footage of the alleged terror attack in Sydney, that's going to return to court today. I keep coming back to this question, though, as to whether Elon Musk, in this instance X, really cares about what one jurisdiction in the world has to say about content on his platform. Is this really something governments can police, especially on a global scale? 

ROWLAND: I would say that the world is looking at Australia right now, not only in terms of the News Media Bargaining Code, but also in relation to the implementation and enforcement of Australia's Online Safety Act. The counterfactual to the implication in your question there is that Australia either does nothing or stands aside and says we are not concerned with enforcing our own laws –
ORITI: The suggestion was the global implication of it though. We could do it at a domestic level, which X has argued has been done. I'm talking about the global reach of our domestic federal jurisdiction, though. 

ROWLAND: Well, if you're asking that, that is the subject matter of the case, and I'm not going to provide a running commentary on that. What I will say is that this Government backs our eSafety Commissioner taking the necessary steps to enforce a law of Australia - a law that was democratically passed – that said that there are certain types of content that should not be seen in Australia. They include depictions of actual violence, child sexual abuse or exploitation material, and pro-terror content.
ORITI: Okay, I also want to ask you just a couple of other issues on the impending shutdown of our 3G mobile network in Australia. Minister, Telstra has delayed the closure of 3G until the end of August. Fears that hundreds of thousands - 200,000 - Australians wouldn't be able to call Triple Zero as a result of the shutdown. I’m just keen to hear your thoughts on that. Is it even possible to address this issue within the next three months? I mean, surely we can't have a situation where people can't call Triple Zero? 

ROWLAND: The Government supports the decision by the carriers to transition from their 3G networks and to upgrade their mobile services for the betterment of Australians. But our view is that this needs to be done in a safer way. And just for context for your listeners, what we're talking about here are 4G enabled devices. So, they're not 3G devices, they're 4G devices. So, on the day that the switchover occurs, people won't notice when they're making calls or texts. When they will notice that their phone doesn't work is when they attempt to call Triple Zero. And that's because the manufacturer has configured the device in such a way that it uses the 3G network for Triple Zero calls.
ORITI: So, of course, that's a major problem, isn't it? 

ROWLAND: It is a significant issue. And it came to light that there were some over 700,000 potential devices across the networks that could have been impacted. That number, following the Government's establishment with industry of a Working Group to keep tabs on this, to contact customers and to undertake far more proactive measures, has now resulted in that being nearly halved. But it's still a large number of devices, according to industry estimates.
ORITI: So, is it two-month delay? Is a short delay enough to fix that problem? 

ROWLAND: Telstra has been doing its utmost, as they have demonstrated through the Working Group, to directly contact customers. They are ramping that up. And the fact that they have made a decision to delay this switch over as well, demonstrates that they acknowledge the need to do more in this area. What I would say for your listeners, that the industry has a website, and please do not test by calling Triple Zero today. That’s not a reason to call Triple Zero. But I urge, particularly people who may have older devices, to contact their carrier and to check whether their device will be compatible after the 3G switch over.
ORITI: Can I just ask you, before I let you go, represent the electorate of Greenway in Sydney's West. I just want to ask, and being also the Minister for Communications, your electorate covers a small part of the Cumberland Council area in Sydney, which has been in the headlines. I'm not sure if you've seen, for banning a book at public libraries that featured a gay couple on the book. Just given that some of your constituents are part of that area, do you agree with the Councillors who say the decision reflects what the community wants? 

ROWLAND: Well, these are the actions of an individual who is seeking to publicise himself in the lead up to a Council election. That is what this is. This is not about a particular item that may or may not be in a local library. And I can tell you exactly, as you say, representing part of this constituency: I have held countless mobile offices, outreach, train station meet-and-greets. Not one member of that community has ever raised with me the issue of what is available in their public libraries. This is entirely being manufactured by an individual for his own political purposes – and we should just call it out for what it is.
ORITI: With respect, though, an individual who councillors did side with, and the majority of, and the Council did pass that motion. This was not just Steve Christou. Other councillors and the majority of whom - yes, a narrow victory I should say - the majority did side with him. This was not just him. 

ROWLAND: And it has been led by this individual. And as a former local councillor on a neighbouring council, I can certainly see why some of these councillors may have decided to go with this particular person's motion.
But this should be about ratepayers; ratepayers who want more in their public libraries – not less.
ORITI: Okay, Minister, thank you very much for your time. Appreciate it.

ROWLAND: Pleasure.