Press Conference - MoU signing between Australia and the United Kingdom

JOURNALIST: Secretary, I was just talking to the Minister earlier about this challenge of the negotiations you have to have with the tech companies about the encryption problem, which is quite a sort of binary issue of, you know, you either decrypt to make the Online Safety Bill work, or you allow them to keep encrypting. Have you actually cracked that problem yet in the UK?

SECRETARY OF STATE FOR SCIENCE, INNOVATION AND TECHNOLOGY, RT HON MICHELLE DONELAN: I don't see it necessarily as a binary issue in relation to our Online Safety Act that we've successfully launched our piece of legislation; it gained royal assent a few months ago and we're now in the implementation stage. When it comes to encryption, we have said that shouldn't be a barrier to meeting the aims of our piece of legislation, and at its heart, it's about protecting children. And I believe that that is the primary responsibility of any Government: keeping people safe, especially children. And that must include the online world as well as the offline world. What we have done is put in a safety mechanism which might not have to be used, but it may, in a scenario where if there was an evidence base, that a platform that had encrypted, or was about to encrypt, was awash, for instance, with child abuse and sexual exploitation, and the regulator could ask them to research technology which would protect the spirit of encryption, but would enable the detection of those types of instances. In a scenario where other things had been explored, and that was still the case, they could then ask them to actually deploy that technology. Now, we may never get to that stage, because that is more of a last resort, but here in the UK, we did do a proof of concept and as well to highlight the fact that it is possible to make sure that we are continuing to prioritise children regardless of the issue of encryption.

JOURNALIST: The EU has obviously announced an inquiry to TikTok today and some of the Terms of Reference include sort of age verification for children and things like that. I was just more interested, I mean, how valuable are multilateral agreements or bilateral agreements or multilateral whether it be through the G7s, G20s, or something today, in terms of dealing with tech organisations instead of sort of jurisdictions going ahead and their own way?

DONELAN: Well, I see, today's Memorandum of Understanding is very much a new era of cooperation. And when you think about online safety, both of our nations were amongst the first to act in a comprehensive way on this agenda, because we share common values, and we recognise how important it is that we're making the online world as safe as possible and what I hope this achieves, is that we encourage other nations to take that plunge and to recognise that it is possible and doable. And that we can, we need to stay on top of this agenda as technology develops, including the impact of AI. And when we carved out our legislation, we did work very closely with tech organisations to make sure that everything that we're asking them to do was actually doable, and achievable. And that they were preparing in the meantime, whilst we were producing our legislation. But I think our agreement is showing that this isn't just something that individual, a couple of individual countries recognise as an important agenda, but this is a movement across the world. And this isn't sparked because politicians one day woke up and thought this would be an important thing to explore - a spark - because the people in both of our countries have been crying out for more protections for their children online and for more say over the content that they see.

MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS, HON MICHELLE ROWLAND: I certainly endorse all of the Minister's comments, and just to also add that we both see this very much as an ongoing piece of work for us. This is not a set and forget. We had very good discussions just earlier about the need to keep this alive, to keep on top of emerging harms as they arise and to think about the next steps as we take this forward. So, it is a very exciting day for both our countries. But more importantly, it's about ensuring the safety of our citizens and our most vulnerable citizens as they navigate what is essentially a new world. Lastly, I would like to endorse the Minister's comments about the ecosystem and the need for industry to continue to work with governments, regulators and civil society to make the online space a safer one. It is imperative that we continue to work together; this MOU provides an excellent basis for some of the key issues that have arisen, and to ensure that we remain on top of the need for regulation that is relevant, that has efficacy, is capable of being implemented, and that ultimately achieves its outcome of keeping our citizens safe.

JOURNALIST: Do the tech companies sort of, is there a bit of regulatory forum shopping? Do they come to you and say: ‘look, it's done this way in the US, or done this way in the EU, why isn’t it done this way?’ Are they, you know, even as you look to kind of harmonize and work together, are the tech companies either trying to sort of force you down to a lowest common denominator or drive wedges between you? Is that a tactic they use?

DONELAN: I don't think that happened to either of us, because we were first movers in this area, and we were leading, and we are by the MOU, trying to encourage as well, other nations to follow. We want to continue to lead on this agenda and combine our expertise, and share our notes and enable our regulators to work closer together on this agenda. So, certainly, it wasn't the case that we were being pulled backwards, we're trying to pull everybody forwards on this agenda.

JOURNALIST: Following on from that, is it difficult to regulate the tech industry generally, because, you know, they have access to - they've always been one step ahead of you technologically, you know, does feel like you're always playing catch up with where the tech is at, and does the MoU sort of help that at all?  

DONELAN: One of the points within the MoU is the fact that we want to continue to work together on the emergence of new technologies, like AI, etc. And these are incredibly important agendas. My own Department was responsible for the creation of the AI Safety Summit just a few months ago, which obviously, Australia we're part of, and we signed an MoU there around Quantum. So, we're very much staying at the top of and up to speed with the technological advances and making sure that our legislation and regulation is fit for purpose and future-proof. But when it comes to the legislation that we carved out in the UK, we grounded it in common sense and made sure that it was going to actually deliver the ask of our British public about empowering adults and enabling them to have more say with the content that they see, protecting free speech, whilst at its heart, protecting our children.