Press conference - Kemps Creek

MICHELLE ROWLAND MP, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Ensuring that Australians can reach Triple Zero in an emergency is absolutely critical. That is why today, I have important information for Australian consumers. In the next few months, the networks of Telstra and Optus will begin to switchover from their 3G service to 4G service. This has implications for consumers who use a number of devices.
There are broadly two categories of these devices. Firstly, devices that will only operate on the 3G network. These are some medical alarms and some types of payment terminals. They will not operate once the 3G network is switched off.
Then, there is another category of devices and they are some handsets, which will normally operate when 3G is switched off, because they will switchover to 4G, but they are unable to call Triple Zero on the 4G network. This has recently come to my attention, and I'm concerned to ensure that the industry is doing everything necessary to make consumers aware of this important change. Consumers can visit the industry website – – for a list of affected devices. Ultimately, they should contact their carrier for the most up to date information, but I do want to share with Australians what the Government has done since I became aware of this.
Firstly, I have made it clear in formal terms to the carriers that I expect them to lift, when it comes to informing consumers about this important change. There are some 740,000 devices that could be impacted by this change. It is vital that consumers are made aware of what these devices are and what they [consumers] can do.
Secondly, I have also made it clear to the carriers that they need to do more in a co-ordinated way, because it appears that some counting of devices and assessing the risk level differs as between carriers. We need a consistent approach across the industry. I have therefore established a Working Group of the carriers, with my Department as observer, to provide regular updates going forward and to have a much more co-ordinated plan about how this information is going to be communicated to Australian consumers, and also to ensure that all efforts are aligned to provide the most critical part of this service which is access to Triple Zero in any circumstance.
Thirdly, I have made it clear that whilst we understand the carriers have performed such switchovers before, with for example the closure of the CDMA network and the 2G network, it is vitally important to recognise the importance the Government places on Triple Zero access. To that end, it is a fact that I as Minister have regulatory options available to me if it is in the public interest for me to exercise them. In the interim, I am grateful for the support that has been provided so far by industry, and I welcome their commitment to more co-ordinated efforts in this space. This is about keeping Australians safe, but most importantly today, it is about ensuring that they are informed of what they might need to do if their device is impacted.
JOURNALIST: How could changing a handset, change your life or save your life?
ROWLAND: We know that access to Triple Zero is the most important provision of a telecommunication service - that is simply a fact. We don't want people who may have these devices to wake up after the switchover - and to that point, understanding that their device has been working perfectly fine for voice and data services - but when they need it most to call Triple Zero, it doesn't work. We need to get in ahead of this occurring, because people won't know that they are impacted on these devices until they actually go to use it.
It is absolutely imperative that people are made aware that if they have these specific devices, what they might need to do in that circumstance, but it is also incumbent on the industry to lift its game, to double its efforts and ensure that this information is getting out to people who need it
JOURNALIST: So, this is a matter of life and death isn’t it?
ROWLAND: It is absolutely a matter of life and death, and we know the Triple Zero is relied on by so many Australians every year. We want people to have confidence in the Triple Zero network, and that is one of the reasons why the Government is making this communication today.
JOURNALIST: It might be a highly technical answer, Minister, but can you just explain how you can have a phone that's 4G capable, it can call mum, dad, your brother and sister, the local shops, but it can't call Triple Zero? How is that possible?
ROWLAND: Some of these manufactured devices are ones where [consumers] will otherwise be able to use voice and data on the 4G network, but the 3G network becomes the default for Triple Zero - that is the way they have been manufactured. It is an issue with the specific device manufacturing and we know that there are some 740,000 devices that could be impacted here.
JOURNALIST: So is it up to the device? Who bears the onus of fixing this issue? Because you could say to the carrier's - look, you've got to fix this, or you've got to provide replacement devices for people. But I mean, they could say, well, we didn't make these devices, call the architect. Whose job is to fix this?
ROWLAND: The Government is making it very clear that it is the industry that provides access to the Triple Zero service, and the industry needs to ensure that this risk is mitigated. We know that some of these manufactured devices could actually have come in from overseas, so they weren't actually manufactured in Australia, or more accurately sold by an Australian carrier as part of a package.
Some of these have been purchased on what we call the ‘grey market, as well. Some of them have been sold as part of packages with particular carriers. So again, depending on the manufacturer, and the type of device, there will be different situations. Ultimately, the issue is this: these are devices when calling Triple Zero divert to the 3G network. If there is no 3G network, then they will not be able to call Triple Zero. That is the fundamental issue that needs to be addressed here. We address that by ensuring consumer awareness and we address this by the industry being collaborative, and understanding as a sector, what they need to do to get this message out and to ensure that people have this information.
JOURNALIST: So you run a PR blitz to try and get people to get a new phone essentially, to ditch the old one, get a new one. If that doesn't happen in time, what can you do? I mean, you alluded to have some regulatory options. What does that mean in plain speak?
ROWLAND: As I did say, I do have regulatory options available to me. They require due process to be followed and not to pre-empt the ability of myself to actually make that decision. But in plain English, it could mean that the process for switchover is delayed or subject to certain conditions. These are very high thresholds, however. If it is in the public interest for this to occur, it is an option available for Government. As a Government, we will not leave Australians in a situation where we know there are nearly one million devices out in the community which will be unable to call Triple Zero when the 3G switchover occurs.
I will need to take all of these factors into account in the event that I choose to exercise these powers. And again, without pre-empting, anything that might happen, the public should be well aware – and the industry is under no illusion – that the Government takes public safety as its number one priority.
JOURNALIST: James Patterson is pushing for TikTok to be banned or severely restricted. Do you support a ban?
ROWLAND: Australia takes its advice from our security agencies, which are the best in the world. We are also an independent country who makes its own decisions based on that advice. As the Prime Minister has said, we have been observing what has been going on in other countries and most recently in the United States. The Government has taken a decision that TikTok will not be allowed on Government devices. However, we have not made a similar decision, as has been the case in the US in terms of that legislative process that is happening right now. We will always take advice from our security agencies on these matters.
JOURNALIST: If TikTok shouldn't be allowed on Government phones, why should it be allowed in civilian phones?
ROWLAND: Government has made its decision based on the advice that we have received from security agencies. But I should also note this - TikTok or any other entity operating in Australia, is always subject to Australian law. That includes in respect of the use of personal information and privacy rules. I note that our privacy commissioner right now is undertaking some inquiries into TikTok for some of its behaviour, and I also know that our Attorney-General is pursuing more reform in this area to ensure that we have a robust and fit-for-purpose privacy regime. But ultimately, we take our advice from our security agencies. We have acted on that advice in relation to Government devices.
JOURNALIST: But the content on TikTok is remarkable and children have access to it. Why should it be allowed on civilian phones?
ROWLAND: I would encourage people who have concerns about certain cohorts who may not be suitable to be accessing that content to engage in the proper settings of devices to which children might have access. To that end, I encourage everyone to visit, which has a wide range of resources available, in particular in ensuring that minors do not have access to inappropriate content.
JOURNALIST: If the US bans TikTok, will Australia follow suit?
ROWLAND: Australia will always make its decisions independently, and we will always follow the advice of our security agencies. Of course, we are observing closely what is happening overseas, including in the United States, but we will make our own decisions as a sovereign nation.
JOURNALIST: What is the Government doing to look at ways making TikTok safer? What specifically are you doing?
ROWLAND: Australians should have confidence that we have a robust framework in terms of online safety. That includes under the Online Safety Act and the role of our eSafety Commissioner. We are also bringing forward a review of the Online Safety Act, because we know that it needs to be continually fit for purpose. Whilst it's only been in operation for some years, new and emerging harms continue to be there and need to be addressed. That is why as a Government, we are looking at this issue from an online harms perspective, also from a privacy perspective, but above all else, taking sound advice from our security agencies, which are the best in the world.
JOURNALIST: What's the status of your disinformation Bill?
ROWLAND: We have been consulting on a draft of that Bill. We continue to engage with stakeholders and we'll have more to say about that in due course.
JOURNALIST: And on the media bargaining code - what is your response to suggestions that Meta will kick news pages off Instagram and Facebook?
ROWLAND: We are well aware of Meta’s intentions in this regard, and they have shown their hand when it comes to deprecating their news tab in Australia and the United States. We continue through the ACCC, Treasury and my Department to receive advice on this. But currently, the ACCC is seeking information from Australian news media publishers as this goes to the important issue of designation under the Code. There are certain thresholds that need to be satisfied and information that needs to be gathered. We promptly requested that Australian news media publishers cooperate with an information request. We are pleased to say that many of them are doing so right now and that the ACCC is undertaking that important work.
JOURNALIST: There’s has been some content floating around of young children fighting in schools, it's been called a fight club. It was left up on platforms like Instagram for hours, Meta didn't take these videos down. What's your response to that?
ROWLAND: The eSafety Commissioner has important powers in this regard, and unfortunately, this is something that the Commissioner has seen previously. There are powers under the Online Safety Act to deal with those particular matters and they are exercised by eSafety.
JOURNALIST: But isn't quite atrocious that this content was left up for hours? This is violent, violent stuff.
ROWLAND: We know that unfortunately, inappropriate content is perpetuated on these platforms. It is the role of eSafety to ensure that when complaints are made in this regard, that they are promptly acted on. eSafety has powers in that regard and does exercise them.
JOURNALIST: Just on 3G Minister, sorry to swing back to it, but a lot of the phones in question that have this problem are some of the cheaper phones that you can buy in the market, they're not necessarily $2,000 phones that are for sale now. I guess many of the people who hold them might be people with not a lot of money. If they can't afford to go and buy a new phone, what can be done to help them with the Government consider a program where they're provided replacement handsets?
ROWLAND: Some of these are older phones as well and it is unclear exactly how many of those devices may be ones that are simply not being used by people anymore. So, they're actually being kept at home and that's one of the reasons why the Working Group needs to have a much better co-ordinated approach right across the industry, to understand the scale of what is being dealt with here. But also some of these devices, not only might they be cheaper, they might be older, as well. So, people have simply chosen not to use them anymore, because they have upgraded. I don't want to get ahead of what the industry is doing, but I have also made it clear in my formal letter to the carriers that the Government is considering what are the steps it needs to take - that could include regulatory action or other action through Government institutions. I won't pre-empt what is being undertaken in terms of that work, but we want to ensure that this risk is mitigated and that starts with the awareness of Australian consumers of the issue at stake here.
JOURNALIST: I think you said it was up to a million devices. Obviously, there'll be work done to try and bring that number down, people may start getting rid of their devices, buying new ones, the number will drop. But what's an acceptable number to reach before the switch off?
ROWLAND: That is a very valid question, and it's one that industry needs to look at, because this is about risk mitigation. This is about ensuring that people who need to know about this do get that information. As I said, in some cases, these could be devices that are no longer being used. They could also be devices that are simply old, but could be resolved and be capable of working under 4G if a software update or some other settings are changed on the device.
It's important to understand the scale of this and to also understand some of those particular cohorts that are impacted. I don't want to get ahead of that, but it is a very valid question. I think it's one that the industry needs to examine and I'm looking forward to them doing this as a priority. I'm pleased to see they are taking this on as a priority, but they do need to lift their game in this regard because Australian consumers need to be able to access Triple Zero and have confidence in the service.
JOURNALIST: When did this issue pop up with the 4G capable phones not being able to dial Triple Zero?
ROWLAND: I became aware of this approximately 10 days ago. I considered it absolutely necessary to take advice on this matter, which I have, and also to consult with the sector to have an action plan going forward. I've also, as I said, made it very clear to the carriers that there are regulatory options available. There are certain preconditions that need to be satisfied, but above all else, the Government's primary obligation to Australians is their safety.