National Press Club Address - Q&A

LAURA TINGLE, HOST: Well, thank you so much, Minister. You mentioned at one point the – well, reflected on the fact that we’ve had those experiences of harmful misinformation on the pandemic, on cancer, the role of bad actors. Of course social media internationally has played – you know, played an extraordinary role in things like the January 6 attack on Congress. I just wondered – and you’ve talked about, you know, the capacity of all of this to fracture whole societies. Separate, if you like, from what governments can do about this, I just wondered whether you could reflect on the willingness and acceptance of those digital giants to – that they’ve got this social responsibility and whether that has changed at all. I mean, we’ve seen this week, fines being imposed on companies which people are speculating won’t be paid. Is there actually a real engagement by those digital companies, particularly given changes in ownership in recent times?
 
ROWLAND: Thank you for your question. And I think it’s critically important to recognise that the role of keeping Australians safe primarily rests with industry, with these platforms, but it’s also a collective effort by government and civil society as well.
 
I think there are two key elements here: the first is, as I mentioned in my Address, it is a virtuous cycle for platforms to build in to their own systems the ability to keep users safe, to be able to understand those systems and processes. And to that very point, the industry has developed a voluntary code. That voluntary code is proposed to be codified so that we understand precisely what those platforms are doing, how they are meeting those expectations and rules that they have signed up to voluntarily. Because I’ve mentioned throughout my address how important transparency is when it comes to understanding the behaviour of these platforms. It’s one of the key factors to address that power imbalance and that information asymmetry. It’s a very important feature of eSafety and the Online Safety Act. But nothing exists in relation to ‘looking under the hood’ of those digital platforms and understanding their systems and processes and requesting that they provide information about precisely what they are doing to meet those obligations.
 
But I think the other important factor is this – and, again, I mentioned this in my address – it’s so important, so critical to have appropriate digital literacy built up not just through children but over the entire life cycle of the consumer. And that requires a number of steps to be made. Firstly, I think it is critical that the platforms invest in this themselves. It’s also critical that Governments through a holistic approach take action in this area.
 
And to that end, I note that I have convened the Ministerial Council of Online Harms, so there is direct interaction across a variety of portfolios at a Commonwealth level, including Education, Home Affairs and Health. That’s so that we understand as a government, as a whole, what we can be doing to encourage that safety right throughout the user experience on the platforms.
 
TINGLE: Just a follow-up: given, though, as you say, we’ve seen this surge of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism on the platforms, doesn’t that suggest that that responsibility isn’t being taken seriously and throw into question the idea that a voluntary code is sufficient?
 
ROWLAND: I think you’re correct, and that is why we are addressing this gap in the framework by updating the Expectations to include what the platforms are doing in relation to their own policies about minimising the impact of hate speech. This is a gap in the regulatory framework. It’s one that a number of jurisdictions are grappling with, and it’s one that I look forward to taking measures on as part of this updating of the basic online safety expectations.
 
JOURNALIST: Tom Connell from Sky News and here at the Press Club as well. It looks as though you were set – or you are set to proceed with prominence laws to do with smart TVs. Your own policy paper on that said it would give free to air stations effectively an advantage in the streaming age. Is there any other policy area where one type of company is given advantage over another like that?
 
ROWLAND: Thank you for your question. And I think there are two things that are important here: the first is that prominence was a policy that we took to the last election, to legislate a prominence framework. But, secondly, we are doing this as part of a broader media reform agenda to update our laws for the digital age.
 
The reality is that smart devices, connected TVs, are not what we used to have when I was growing up. It’s not a box sitting in the corner. It is a smart device which extrapolates large amounts of information. But, importantly, it means that local Australian TV services have been made more difficult to find.
 
I’d like to answer your question in this way: I talked in my Address about addressing market failure and being proportionate. This satisfies both. Not only does it ensure that we overcome this power imbalance that exists, but we also address the issue that’s important from a cultural perspective – that we ensure Australians can access local television services more easily. And we know at this time that that is becoming more and more difficult and will only be exacerbated into the future.
 
JOURNALIST: So it’s a market failure of free to air and not the most popular?
 
ROWLAND: I don’t think this is a question of popularity, and it’s never been characterised in that way. This is about updating the regulatory framework for the digital age. As I said, we know that these smart devices are operating in a way that makes it difficult for Australians to access local TV services. That needs to be remedied, and it needs to be remedied in the long-term interests of consumers. Consumers are who we are most concerned about here, and that is why we took this as an election commitment as part of a suite of media reforms.
 
JOURNALIST: Sarah Ison from The Australian. I just wanted to speak to the misinformation bill and particularly the exemptions that we might see there. We have seen in the last sort of weeks and you talk about there being religious exemptions. Can you clarify what that would mean, if someone says something that is part of a religious belief, that might be kind of carved out from a platform needing to take that down? And also can you be clear, if you will retain the exemption for political parties within the misinformation bill?
 
ROWLAND: Well, as to your first question, we are working through these issues now as part of the consultation process. But it is a point that has been raised by several submitters. And, again, I thank all the submitters who’ve taken the time to express their views on this issue.
 
We will work through precisely what those exemptions will be. But we understand that there has been concern from a variety of faith organisations that their religious views should not be considered as part of this rubric. We are working through that at the moment and will have more to say in due course.
 
There have been calls for exemptions, in fact, to be removed, including when it comes to authorised election material and also as it applies to media services as well. I’ve made it clear that those exemptions are in there for a reason – it’s because they are regulated elsewhere, under different standards and under other laws.
 
But in terms of any other exemptions, we will work through those as part of this consultation process. We have a large number of people who have made very detailed submissions and we appreciate that. And we’ll work through this.
 
JOURNALIST: So you’re open to removing the exemption for political parties – not just electoral but political parties being exempt from this? Are you open to removing that exemption?
 
ROWLAND: Well, let me be clear – and if you’re talking in particular about notices that can be given by government, which has been a source of contention. I want to be clear that that exemption was proposed to ensure that important emergency and otherwise official information from government that is important to people wasn’t taken down or removed by digital platforms.
 
We understand that that has been the subject of some misinterpretation. We want to get this drafting right and we want to ensure that this reflects the proper intent – which is to hold the digital platforms to account for the policies, systems and processes that they have signed up to and they’ve already committed to.
 
JOURNALIST: Minister, thank you for your speech, and congratulations on your first Press Club appearance. There’s been reporting earlier this year and also last week about both yourself and Mr Albanese attending various events with gambling industry lobbyists. I just want to ask you: those events have been organised by the Federal Labor Business Forum, at which organisations pay a subscription fee for various levels of access. Do you as a Minister have a choice about whether you attend those events or are you required to?
 
ROWLAND: I very much appreciate your question. It gives me the opportunity to acknowledge that there is a large amount of community concern in this area about the impacts of gambling and gambling advertising more generally, which I have covered in my Address.
 
I’d like to say from the outset that I have at all times and will continue to comply with all rules in relation to disclosure and donations, that every Member of Parliament must comply with this and every political party must comply with this. I intend to continue participating in fundraising activities and also meeting with a wide variety of stakeholders relevant to my portfolio. But, at all times will I continue to comply with those disclosure requirements.
 
I made an announcement earlier this year that I would no longer accept donations or hospitality from gambling companies. I have adhered to that promise and will continue to do so in future.
 
I will also point out that in 18 months, the Albanese Government has delivered more in terms of gambling reform and harm minimisation than any Government before it – including the launch of BetStop, including banning the use of credit cards for online wagering, which actually passed the House of Representatives recently, and enacting the final provisions of the National Consumer Protection Framework. We have proof points that demonstrate our commitment and our delivery when it comes to harm minimisation.
 
On the broader issue of donations and disclosure more generally I know that my colleague, Minister Farrell, is undertaking an important piece of work in this area through JSCEM, and is open to all ideas about how we can further improve democracy in this country.
 
JOURNALIST: Just – sorry, can I just clarify, is it voluntary or is it a requirement upon ministers to attend those events?
 
ROWLAND: I choose to attend such events. I will continue to attend fundraising events. But I will always do so in accordance with donations and disclosure requirements. All political parties are required to do the same, and I think it is important to recognise the piece of work being undertaken by the Government right now in order to update the rules that govern our democracy, and make any changes that are deemed necessary to make it stronger.
 
JOURNALIST: Ben Westcott from Bloomberg. Thank you very much for your speech, Minister. You’ve spoken – you spoke in your speech about online gambling ads and you said you were going to undertake consultation on it and look into it. But, I mean, anyone who has been on YouTube recently will have been deluged with ads from a range of gambling services. You’ve already mentioned some of the harm minimisation measures you’ve undertaken. Why is this a complicated reform from your perspective? Why can’t we just ban gambling ads online?
 
ROWLAND: Thank you for your question. And it’s one that is often proposed. It’s one that is used in relation to, for example, the banning of tobacco ads many years ago. The reality is, again as I outlined in my speech, over the years the gambling industry and sport, for example, the relationship has very much changed. We know that the impact of gambling ads is felt right across the community, and the Committee made some very important recommendations in that regard.
 
In answer to your question, I’m consulting closely with a wide range of stakeholders because we need to understand the impacts in this area, but also what changes need to be made in order for it to be more robust in future.
 
I would point out that the last time that this was amended under the Turnbull Government actually resulted in an increase in gambling advertising. We need to ensure that we get the policy settings right. But I can assure you that we are at all times guided by the principles of harm minimisation. We’re consulting widely with a range of experts in this area. We understand the community concern. I’ve made it clear that the status quo cannot continue and we will have more to say on this in due course.
 
JOURNALIST: Good afternoon, Minister. Thank you for your address. Reece D’Alessandro from Nine News. I too wanted to ask about prominence laws, and I understand you’re taking a number of different views on the various elements of those laws on board. And so I wanted to ask you: when do you anticipate that framework will be finalised and any changes put before parliament?
 
ROWLAND: Thank you very much for your question. And as I said, updating our media laws to reflect the digital age is a key priority and one that we took to the election. And prominence – having a prominence framework in Australia – is a key part of that. We expect to be introducing legislation this year on the issue, and this follows a detailed consultation process over the past 12 months.
 
JOURNALIST: Hi Minister, thank you. Paul Sakkal from the Nine papers. I wanted to ask on age verification for porn websites: child safety experts and women’s safety experts have said you’ve gone soft on the industry and you’re trusting them too. I wondered, on what basis do you trust the pornography industry to engage in a cooperative code? And, just quickly, the issues you’ve gone through today – AI, hate speech, misinformation – they strike me as huge, global behemoths. I wonder are the advocates, many of whom are in this room, unreasonable in thinking that, you know, a Communications Minister can fix all these problems?
 
ROWLAND: Thank you very much for your question. To the first part: there would be no decent-minded Australian who wants children to access age-inappropriate material, including pornography. I’m very grateful to the eSafety Commissioner for undertaking an important piece of work with the age verification road map.
 
As the eSafety Commissioner noted, and as I alluded to in my address, the ability and the efficacy of the systems that currently exist for age verification are immature and also carry significant risks in terms of privacy and their ability to be implemented overall.
 
What I have done as \Minister in receiving that age verification report is take a detailed look at how we can most effectively prevent children from accessing that harmful material. And I want to be clear on this point: this isn’t only about accessing pornographic sites. This is about the some 30 per cent - and growing - of content that children see literally coincidentally. They stumble across this using online platforms, it’s not something that they go looking for. It is incidental to their online experience. And, therefore, what we are seeking to address is ensuring that the digital platforms have measures in place to minimise that from happening.
 
If I take, for example, the case of Roblox, which is a popular service. Parents are often led to believe that this is a safe service, but I note that there’s at least one case on-foot in the United States suing Roblox for not protecting children from seeing inappropriate material.
 
What I want to do as Minister is utilise the powers that we have right now that are effective under the Online Safety Act, and I have asked the eSafety Commissioner to commence work on the second tranche of codes to address pornographic content. This is critical for ensuring that the industry lifts its game. And as I also said, we want the industry to invest more in what we know can be effective age assurance technologies.
 
So, this is a multifaceted problem that regulators around the world are grappling with, which to the second part of your question actually goes to the precise point. Regulators around the world are dealing with these questions of online safety, of prominence, of ensuring that children don’t access harmful content. And it is important that we undertake this in a cooperative manner not only across Governments and regulators, but we also do this across whole of Government. And that is what we are seeking to do in this space to address those harms.
 
We are not going to be a Government who says that big tech is too big and we can’t address this power imbalance in the interests of Australian consumers. We are determined to make things better.
 
JOURNALIST: Thanks, Minister. Josh Butler from The Guardian. I want to go back to the question that Ben Westcott asked about gambling ads online, and I guess especially ones that kids might be exposed to. I’m sort of thinking about, you know, TikTok profiles where, you know, a gambling company has, you know, a social media influence or a comedian or something hosting, you know, branded content, making funny videos and that sort of thing that then lead back to gambling. You’ve spoken about the age verification issue and, I guess, also the consultation paper goes to the recommender, the search recommender, sort of algorithms and that sort of thing. Could you talk a little bit, I guess, about how kids are being exposed to gambling ads online, and if it’s appropriate, I guess, for kids to be talking about same-game multis and bonus-bet offers and those sort of things. Like, what more can be done in that sort of area specifically around children?
 
ROWLAND: Thank you very much for your question.  You highlight the important point that when we talk about vulnerable Australians when it comes to gambling advertising that we also consider that children as some of those vulnerable Australians as well.
 
I think the main point to make here is that we are considering the recommendations of the Committee’s report into gambling promotions and we are looking at this holistically, not only across the broadcasting space, but across the whole range of recommendations that have been made. No decisions have been made yet, but I would like to share with you that throughout this consultation process one thing we have been very focused on in understanding from advocacy and other experts is how harmful this is for children, where it appears and what steps could be taken in response.
 
But in addition to that, you make an astute point about what the platforms could be doing about minimising that access to those harms as well. We know that is the platforms themselves who know more about their consumers than governments and regulators ever will. So, we are continually looking at ways in which we can utilise the online safety – basic online safety expectations in order to meet those community standards but, most importantly, to keep vulnerable Australians safe, particularly children.
 
JOURNALIST: Hi, Minister. Melissa Coade from The Mandarin. This morning there was in the Strategic Cyber Security Strategy  recommendation that to strengthen cyber security obligations and compliance, the Government was considering a proposal to introduce a last resort all-hazard consequence management power. And given that communications is one of the 11 critical infrastructure branches, I was wondering if you could tell us whether you’ve been briefed on what that would look like in the telco space and what your role as Minister would be, should that power need to be enlivened.
 
ROWLAND: Thank you very much for your question. And it is very contemporary. My colleague Minister O’Neil announced this only recently, and it is an important step in updating Australia’s cyber defences and having a broad whole-of-economy approach to those incidences of cyber security and breaches.
 
The way in which the Comms portfolio and Home Affairs portfolio interact are many and varied. But if I can, for example, one such scenario – and that is in relation to critical network infrastructure and the ways in which we need to ensure that they are embedded in a manner that actually increases their ability to withstand those cyber attacks.
 
So, I’m working very closely with Minister O’Neil. It is through primarily the infrastructure parts of my portfolio where this operates, but in all cases it is a whole-of-government approach again that we are taking here.
 
JOURNALIST: Andrew Brown from AAP. Thanks so much for your speech, Minister. We’ve seen in recent years countless local, rural and regional papers have to force to close due to declining revenue and ever-increasing costs. Often many of these papers are the only source of news in that particular community. And while there have been one-off grants that the government has put through for printing costs, what else do you plan to do to help these rural and regional papers not only survive but to thrive in a media environment? And when would we expect to see some sort of Government policy, strategy, surrounding this?
 
ROWLAND: Thank you very much for your question. And you highlight one of the key objectives of Australia’s media landscape, which is to support localism and diversity in our media. It has been a long time that these experiences, and these pressures, on so many regional and outer metropolitan publications has existed. And exactly as you say, this Government has undertaken a number of interventions, including assisting with immediate cash flow issues that were very well received by the sector as a whole. But also in supporting hyperlocal news content and helping them to adapt has been an important area of funding.
 
I expect to be announcing in the near future our NewsMAP, our News Media Assistance Program. And that is based on research that is being informed by the ACMA’s work around diversity and areas where for so many years we did not understand where these news deserts existed or where potential ones were emerging. So, we will have more to say shortly in terms of our broader media reform program.
 
But I also acknowledge that this is critical for democracy in some of these areas where often it is the one local publication that is really carrying the weight of supporting that diversity. We want to do everything we can as a Government to enable that to thrive. But we need to do so in a measured way that is long-term as well.
 
We’ve seen interventions in past years under previous Governments which purported to set up the media industry for decades to come. But we know with the challenges of digitisation, and the rise of the platforms, that this has placed the sector under increasing stress. So, I expect to make announcements in the near future, but I thank you very much for bringing to the attention – everyone’s attention - to this important issue of localism, especially in regional areas.
 
JOURNALIST: Jack Quail from News Corporation. Minister, thank you very much for your address. My question goes to the future of the Sky Muster Program. I mean, more than $650 million has been sunk into the program now, but, I mean, it’s increasingly uncompetitive to Elon Musk’s Starlink. It’s shedding customers there. We’re seeing as well that users are suffering from very low speeds too. So, I guess my question is: What do you see as the future of the Program? Is the Government going to continue sinking money into what is ageing infrastructure now?
 
ROWLAND: Thank you very much for your question. It’s actually really pertinent to consider the other interventions the Government is making to ensure that rural and regional Australians in particular have access to the highest quality broadband services.
 
The Albanese Government has been investing in the NBN across all its technologies, upgrading copper to fibre, upgrading our fixed-line network, but also investing in Sky Muster. What we have been able to do over this past year with NBN’s investments in this area is enabled the first uncapped, unmetered product for Sky Muster. That resulted from a trial of a number of consumers who actually found that it significantly improved their services.
 
I also want to talk about the virtuous cycle here when it comes to that technology. By fibering up more areas, we can move more customers to the fixed-line network and we can move more customers off the satellite network and, in turn, upgrade their technologies to something that may be more suitable for them.
 
But in terms of the LEOSats – the low earth orbit satellites – I established an LEOSat Working Group with industry so that we better understand where these challenges are, and how they are serving consumers’ needs. I also announced recently a review of the Universal Service Obligation, not to question whether or not it needed to be updated to be fit for purpose, but to look at specific solutions and new initiatives that could be put in place. And the role of LEOSats will certainly form part of that consideration.
 
I think it’s important to recognise that the Sky Muster service provided by NBN Co provides an important, affordable backstop for many rural and regional customers. And, of course, the rise of LEOSats over recent years has enabled some customers for whom this is well suited for them to take advantage of that technology. But at the same time, NBN Co has this obligation to provide its services to Australians. We will take the lessons from not only the LEOSat Working Group but as these satellites near end of life, decisions will need to be made about their future.
 
But you can rest assured that they will be very well informed not only by technological developments as they exist at any point in time but, above all else, what is in the long-term interests of consumers to have reliable broad band irrespective of where they live or work.
 
TINGLE: Minister, are you happy to take a couple more questions? We’re just running a little bit over time, but are you happy to –
 
ROWLAND: Certainly.
 
JOURNALIST: Marcellus Enalanga from SBS. The ABC has repeatedly reported on allegations of Telstra mistreating remote Indigenous customers and signing them up for unaffordable bills causing huge financial stress. How widespread is the issue, and how – and what steps is the Government prepared to take to stop this happening?
 
ROWLAND: Thank you very much for your question. It is a matter of public record that Telstra was handed a significant fine a number of years ago for mis-selling products to consumers who could not afford them and for whom it was inappropriate to sell those products. I know that within Telstra, and the industry more generally, this has been a wake-up call to lift their game.
 
I’d also like to report, as I alluded to, members of the First Nations Digital Inclusion Advisory Group are here. One of the key topics that they have been consulting on as they go around Australia formulating an action plan for digital inclusion for First Nations people is that very issue of having appropriate affordability and appropriate selling practices.
 
The other point I’d like to make is that earlier this year I announced that I would put the financial hardship provisions of the Telecommunications Consumer Protections Code into a standard. The reason why I chose to do that was from interacting and listening with advisory groups and advocates who have continued to highlight that it is First Nations people who are often bearing the brunt of not having appropriate services and appropriate terms of service explained or provided to them.
 
So that is being done now. It is not only, I stress, First Nations Australians who have been victims in this area. But it does highlight an important cohort that we are seeking to protect.
 
JOURNALIST: Hello, Minister. Monte Bovill from the ABC. Thank you for your address. You’ve expressed a concern about increasing hate speech online, particularly on social media platform X. I guess, how has the platform been – has the platform been responsive to the Government here, and would you go  a step further and urge Australians to not use that platform?
 
ROWLAND: Well, thank you very much for your question. And in discussing X, I think it’s important to make two distinctions here: firstly, in relation to their conduct for which they are challenging actions that have been taken by eSafety, that is a separate matter in relation to compliance with code provisions. And I know that that is subject to legal challenge so I won’t provide running commentary on it. But I do note that that is occurring under that rubric of the code’s process.
 
In relation to hate speech, what I have done today in announcing consultation on updating the expectations is to draw hate speech into that rubric. So, this will be the first time under the BOSE – the Basic Online Safety Expectations – that we will have a requirement on the platforms to report against what they may have for their own systems and policies for regulating hate speech.
 
I do believe this is an area that has been underdone for too long. It is clearly an area of concern. It threatens our social cohesion, particularly in the current environment. And the Government has determined that we need to take action in this area.
 
TINGLE: Please join me in thanking the Minister for her address today.