Press conference on the National Roundtable for Online Dating Safety
MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Good afternoon. I want to start by thanking the participants of today's Roundtable on online dating apps and the importance of consumer safety. It's been a thoughtful and insightful morning and all the contributions that were made were most valuable. Most importantly, I want to thank all the participants today for their shared commitment to better prevent and respond to harms occurring on or through dating apps. I think this was a very important first step. I think that's the collective view of all the participants who were there today. I think it's also the view right across the community who understand how important this issue is. I think this forum was a very important initiative. We all know, unfortunately, someone who's been a victim of harm by someone that they've met on a dating app or will know a story of someone who has been such a victim. It's too common, and it's not acceptable. I particularly want to thank the victim survivors, and the advocacy groups for victim survivors who participated so constructively in the Roundtable, and also thank the industry for their productive contributions. What we are seeing is a continuation of the broader issue of domestic and sexual violence, particularly against women through interactions that start in the online environment. This was highlighted by research that we discussed today, showing the scale and the scope of harms online. That's why we convened this session. I want to start by talking about the tenor of the Roundtable today - it was collaborative. Everyone went in there today wanting to have outcomes. We all realise those outcomes are not going to be instantaneous and they're going to require more work. But above all else, there's a collective desire to do better for Australians and a collective understanding that the online dating apps need to do better. There was a lot of material covered in the meeting. And we appreciate the engagement both in the lead up to and in the course of the discussion. I want to acknowledge to that – of course – not everyone who has expertise or valuable ideas could be in the room today. And again, this was a first step. We're going to be seeking views and contributions more widely from here.
I'm going to share with you some of the key things we learned today. While there is no overnight solution, there are some immediate steps we have identified coming out of this as we work together with all stakeholders to tackle the issue. Firstly, in terms of what we heard in the room, we went in there with a few key focus areas. First, preventing exploitation of online dating services by perpetrator. Second, supporting the users who experience harm and third, empowering users with safer online dating practices. Across all of these, we wanted to look at existing industry efforts, existing laws and regulations and what more can be done. On the prevention front, we heard that work is underway by industry participants, which is encouraging. The companies like Grindr, Bumble and Match also spoke about technology solutions, such as using artificial intelligence to detect harmful language. They also spoke about some of the work that's underway in other jurisdictions on issues like background checks. These initiatives are encouraging. But again, I would say these are early days. We need to understand what can be applied in the Australian context, what will work in Australia, and there is clearly more to be done. There were a number of ideas raised in relation to disclosure of criminal backgrounds by app users. This is a very important issue that needs further examination and thoughtful consideration. None of us underestimate the complex issues around privacy, user safety, and data collection and management that are involved, some of which were raised today by those representing victim-survivors and criminology experts. There is no one law that is going to fix this issue. And as victim-survivor groups also pointed out, some of these legal options can have unintended consequences. However, we also heard very clearly that the criminal justice system is only part of the work ahead. We know that many instances of abuse are perpetrated by those without a criminal record or any convictions.
We also heard the clear principle that the onus should not be placed on victim-survivors as the only people with a responsibility to keep themselves safe. That's why big focus of the discussion was also on what can be done to encourage respectful online interactions, and to drive behavioural change, to prevent abuse from occurring in the first place and to intervene early. I'll in a moment, I'll ask Minister Amanda Rishworth to go into greater detail. In terms of supporting users, I'm very grateful for Chanel Contos for participating today. She spoke very eloquently about the need to strengthen education to empower users and to drive that critical cultural change. We need that to stop perpetrators from causing harm in the first place.
We also heard that it's critical that any responses are trauma-informed, with the perspectives of victim-survivors, including those from vulnerable groups - including people with disabilities - front and centre. In the design of these features, we want the perspective of victim-survivors. Now there is clearly room for improvement in relation to complaints handling when a user of a dating app flags problems. Complaints should not be just another data point. They cannot go into the bottom drawer and just be ignored. We need industry to improve their action, their transparency and their accountability in how they respond to consumer complaints. Now, these were just some of the critical matters raised. I want to thank everyone again for the valuable discussion.
In turning to next steps, like I said at the outset, there's no overnight solution or quick fix. But there are a number of actions coming out of today that I want to touch on that we're going to progress. First with my colleague Minister Amanda Rishworth. I will convey the outcome of today's Roundtable to both the Commonwealth and the State and Territory Attorneys-General as a matter of priority, so that consideration of the issues today can be taken forward – particularly looking at criminal justice responses to technology facilitated violence and abuse. As I mentioned, we really need the perspectives of victims kept front and centre as policies are developed and implemented. The Domestic Family and Sexual Violence Commissioner Micaela Cronin – who is here with us – will be undertaking consultation with victims-survivors of dating app related violence. On prevention and transparency, my Department, along with the eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman-Grant, will examine safety measures currently in place by platforms to identify best practice and key gaps. As part of this, the Commonwealth will seek more detailed information from dating services used by Australians to inform consideration on what further actions are needed to lift standards. I would note that the eSafety Commissioner already has powers under the Online Safety Act, which I'll ask her to speak to shortly. And there are regulatory mechanisms to improve transparency and drive change. Finally, in terms of education, I was very pleased there was agreement in the room between industry and civil society, on the need to work together to change attitudes and behaviours of perpetrators. Minister Rishworth will speak about the Government's contribution here. In addition, I know that my State counterparts have work underway, and are exploring the levers they have to tackle this, including in New South Wales. I thank them for sharing progress in today's meeting, including Minister Natalie Ward in New South Wales, and thank them for their contributions. I'll pass over to Minister Amanda Rishworth.
AMANDA RISHWORTH, MINISTER FOR SOCIAL SERVICES: Thank you, and today was a really important first step in the conversation about how we make sure that women and other users of online technology – particularly dating apps – are kept safe. I think there was a really good conversation about a whole range of technological solutions that can ensure people are kept safe. But really, I wanted to bring to this conversation that we do have a National Plan to Prevent Violence Against Women and Children. We have an ambition with the States and Territories to end violence against women and children in one generation. The work we've been doing has been focused on what the Government can do, what workplaces can do and I think today was an important step in the conversation determine what can online platforms and particularly dating apps can do to ensure that people are kept safe.
What was very heartening for me is that there is an appetite to do more in the room. There's an appetite to ensure that users are safe. The message came very clear through: it cannot just be about how users report abuse online. I think while there was a strong message from victim-survivor groups that this can be done better, it is not the whole solution. We need to make sure that dating apps and technology platforms are embedding prevention, they're embedding early intervention – which does include education – that they are embedding appropriate responses, and they are embedding principles of healing and recovery. The Commonwealth has funded a significant amount of evidence-based research and practical resources that today we offered to the dating apps. We will ensure that our knowledge and our experience that we apply outside of the online world is available to them, so that they can make sure that their responses are fit-for-purpose in an Australian context. This is incredibly important. The work that Chanel does when it comes to teaching about consent is also really important, whether it be in the classroom or in other forums. We need that translated into these dating apps and onto these online sites. There is a lot of work to be done. But if we can coordinate this, if we can get this right, we can ensure that we minimise the impact it has on victim-survivors.
The other really strong message in the room is that we need to ensure that this is not just a technological solutions without the voice of victim-survivors – those who have experienced this type of bad behaviour, abuse and violence. I am really very pleased that Micaela Cronin, our first ever National Family, Domestic and Sexual Violence Commissioner, will be making sure that the voices of victims-survivors are heard going forward. The Commonwealth along with States and Territories does significant work in this area. We need to make sure that best practice is now embedded in these dating sites and apps, and that we actually ensure that people are safe online.
Finally, I would make the comment that there was a strong message that there is no one silver bullet. And we cannot put all the onus on victims-survivors to be responsible for their safety. That is certainly part of it. But there does need to be a proactive response. So I think we have had a very important first discussion, but there is a lot of work to be done. The openness and the collaboration that people have signalled is very encouraging.
JULIE INMAN-GRANT, ESAFETY COMMISSIONER: I want to thank Minister Rowland and Minister Rishworth for doing such a great job in pulling this Roundtable together and pulling some of the primary dating app providers here from all over the world. Now, eSafety has been engaging with the dating sector since 2019. Our primary message to them is you need to assess risk upfront, you need to be more transparent and use the Safety by Design approach to developing, deploying and enforcing your policies. We've made some specific asks of the platforms in the coming years and they have complied. For instance, when we first met with Match in 2019, they had two separate, very confusing reporting flows that weren't reaching people. We know that sexual assault and sexual harassment and violence is underreported anyway. So as part of their user empowerment strategy, which is a key Safety by Design principle, they need to make reporting easier and a more pleasant experience and they need to be responsive. We also talked about the level of service responsibility, not only that the dating apps have, but across the ecosystem. We know that really determined perpetrators won't just use one dating service or platform to target victims: they will use multiple. And as a result, the dating apps need to do a much better job at picking up signals to prevent recidivism of bad actors on multiple platforms and services. This means in line with privacy obligations, that the apps are sharing more across the platforms about bad actors so that we can prevent this victimisation. And finally, transparency and accountability is a hallmark of Safety by Design. We need to know the full scale and scope of offenders on their platforms to really understand the problem in the first instance. We need to know how efficacious the current systems and tools that they're using are. And we need to understand what their roadmap for the future is so that they are applying advanced technologies to get ahead of these platforms challenges. This is both a sprint and a marathon.
We're committed to working with these organisations long-term. We want to see them using proactive nudges, not only to point out to people that they may be doing something that's harmful or abusive, but to also deliver really relevant, in real-time in-app, safer dating messages and also issue red flags when they think that a user might be in danger. All of these things are possible now, but we need to see all of the companies across all these platforms doing it. We can hold their feet to the fire. I am currently considering mandatory industry codes, which will also capture the dating sites at the moment. If their actions don't meet appropriate community standards, I can move to a standard. We've also used the Basic Online Safety Expectations transparency powers against Apple, Google, Microsoft and Snap. We will not hesitate to use them against the dating apps if we're not able to lift the hood voluntarily. So again, it's a continuous journey, we need to do this together. We need codesign with victims-survivors, young people and even older Australians, who are more likely to be victim to social engineering and romance scams. We really have to look from cradle to grave in terms of our education and prevention efforts as well. Thank you very much.
JOURNALIST: The dating app companies can see that they need to do more. What practical changes do you foresee users will see when they do do more? For example, are you going to require them to or have they conceded that they will voluntarily require people to provide identification to sign up to these apps so that users have to prove that they are who they say they are?
ROWLAND: I think there's two elements there. But again, within part of your questions, some of those issues are actually quite vexed, including the ability to be anonymous online. There are many reasons why people using dating apps will choose to be anonymous online. Of course, we don't want perpetrators to be anonymous, however, so we want to be able to understand who they are.
I think there are two things, and this is coming out of the meeting today. There's a recognition that complaint handling needs to be done a lot better. It needs to be meaningful, there needs to be responsiveness and there needs to be transparency. Just as the eSafety Commissioner outlined, part of that also involves the existing framework that is at her disposal to ensure that Basic Online Safety Expectations (BOSE) are being met. I think the second point, and Minister Rishworth alluded to this in her comments too, is that Australia and Australian taxpayers have invested a lot of time and a lot of resources in ensuring that we have the very best available National Plan for the Elimination of Violence and that is evidence based. So I foresee, and this is again coming out of the tenor of the room, but that is something that the dating apps are willing to adopt in the Australian context. When we talk about issues like nudging, for example, getting people to examine whether their behaviour is appropriate - that needs to be in an Australian context and evidence-based. Minister Rishworth might want to supplement that.
RISHWORTH: One of the opportunities that was identified in the room was not just keeping particularly women safe online, but the other opportunity was to actually educate those that are behaving badly through some consent information, to provide 'nudges' to say "this is just not appropriate". This is the work that Chanel and many other people have been doing around consent. So there is an opportunity – and certainly something that the dating app companies were very open to – is how they could actually not just be reactive, but proactively provide education support for those that are identified. I think we'll see better information education built into these apps to understand what respectful relationships are. That is certainly where the conversation started and I think it's something that we absolutely hope to see. But it does need to be in the Australian context. There is a lot of work, for example, being talked about about what respect of women looks like, what consent looks like. That needs to be embedded in these apps in an Australian context with the Australian language and Australian research. That is something that I'm very much hopeful for. The apps did seem to be receptive and there was a receptive discussion in the room, and that's what I'm hoping to work towards.
ROWLAND: The Commissioner is absolutely correct. As the dating apps and all sector are well aware, Australia has had a long history of co-regulation. So this is in conjunction with the industry. We have had regulatory backstops where in situations where things go wrong, or where there are gaps in the framework and where consumers interests are not being served. The eSafety Commissioner is currently, as she said, issuing notices under the Basic Online Safety Expectations. There are options available to me as Minister and to the eSafety Commissioner. That was well articulated in the room. I think the industry understands that. The fact that this Roundtable was held, appeared to be sufficient incentivisation for the apps to make announcements about new measures that they were undertaking, and that is a good thing for Australian consumers. But within my context, my obligation is for the long-term interests of Australian consumers. These dating apps services are not going to go away. 10 years ago, no-one really knew about them. It was a novel idea. Today, over 3 million Australians are using them and the most common place to meet a new partner is actually online and using these apps. We need to bring the industry with us as much as we can. But there is always that regulatory backstop. The industry is well aware that they are on notice – not only in terms of regulatory, but also legislative – frameworks that have been indicated by my State counterparts as well.
ROWLAND: I think there's two things there. Firstly, States, of course, play an important role and the primary role in terms of those particular laws that go to their areas. We had a discussion there from what New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia are proposing to do. In terms of a national framework, we will be taking these ideas and these opportunities and discuss them, not only with our Federal Attorney-General, but with State Attorneys-General as well, because in a lot of instances, of course, there are different criminal justice systems across the different States. We do want to be as uniform as possible but we do want to understand the evidence of what works and what does not. As has been articulated, we want to make sure that we don't have a situation where the onus is unduly placed on the victim-survivor. We want to ensure that whatever law is enacted, it's capable of implementation is fit-for-purpose and actually works.
The second point I would make is that law enforcement in itself, coming out from this Roundtable, again, was not the silver bullet. It's multifaceted. But it is not beyond the ability of the Commonwealth, of the States and Territories and of our various regulatory agencies to make this work. Even as you see today, the collaboration that we have across different Departments and across different regulators is certainly there. I think by working together, we can bring this together and have the best use of taxpayers’ money for the resources that we've invested in this area. Ultimately, this is about keeping Australian safe.
JOURNALIST: Do you have any concrete commitments made by the dating apps, or was it more of a discussion?
ROWLAND: It was a primarily a discussion, and this was an exercise in understanding what they have done, and also what they identify they need to do. One of those areas in particular that they acknowledged they need to do more work in was particularly around vulnerable cohorts. They include people with a disability, people of diverse backgrounds, and older women in particular, who – as Minister Rishworth indicated – are unfortunately more susceptible to that kind of abuse.
There was also an acceptance that more needs to be done in terms of complaint handling. It's not a matter of a tick and flick. There needs to be more focus on the victim-survivor. There needs to be learnings taken away from that and improvements made. I think Australians are reasonable people. But when there are systemic problems with complaints handling, Australians rightly ask why aren't their complaints being dealt with properly? That happens right across every sector. I think the dating apps understand that that is an area in which they need to do more. But lastly, the area that was clear they need to do more is in terms of applying their own artificial intelligence and technology to get better solutions. These companies have some of the most advanced artificial intelligence and technology overall.
But they also acknowledge that they're part of a broader suite of platforms and that we need to look more broadly at the use of data and privacy concerns. Often there's an interaction between privacy and law enforcement. There's a tension there sometimes as well. There was a broad recognition that they need to do more. I think coming out of this, they have a very clear message that Governments at a Commonwealth level, and at a State level and the regulatory agencies available to us, we will be doing everything we can to utilise them effectively.
ROWLAND: We are willing to look at the broad suite of measures. We are willing to look at whatever has worked overseas and in particular States as well. But I would also point out that one of the issues raised by victims-survivor advocacy groups is the presence of someone on a register is not indicative of the whole scope of perpetrators. In some cases – in the words of one of the participants today – it can give a false sense of security that the person with whom you were interacting has a clean record. So we are very willing to look at this whole range of approaches and what can be done most uniformly. We will not have an answer to that overnight. We need to take those lessons, be evidence based and at all times consult victims-survivors, consult the evidence and ensure that we are consistent with the National Plan.
JOURNALIST: A question for Chanel. What does consent education play on dating apps?
CHANEL CONTOS, CO-FOUNDER TEACH US CONSENT: I think that when we're looking at violence perpetrated in a dating environment, we need to look at reasons for perpetration. It's kind of like a two pronged approach. It's either intentional perpetration, which dating apps can help perpetrators scale and kind of harass multiple people in one day. Then there's unintentional perpetration, which comes from a culture that has normalised this sort of behaviour that actually is violent or harassing, or not being able to accept rejection or stalking. I think that makes up the mass of the type of violence that has experienced on dating apps. Whilst measures can be taken in that first prong, job reporting, verification to prevent those potential perpetrators, education has a large role to play in the reduction of this normalised sort of violence. I think that as they're multimillion dollar companies, I think they do have a responsibility to invest in public education and campaigns that make sure that their ultimate product is love. So I think they do have a responsibility to be providing education to the public. They did mention things like using the Tinder Swipe Education System for kinds of surveys and consent questions and things like that. And from conversations with them, they're super open to collaborate in other conversations. It's very nuanced topic, because I think there's a reason for an anonymity for women or for marginalised groups. But I think that what I do support is options - options for consumers and options for people. When I asked my Instagram followers, any ideas that you want to bring to the roundtable, one of the response that came in a few times was an optional verification.
JOURNALIST: What about verification that is provided to the app, but then is kept within their system so that a user can just appear as a verified user, even if their full identity identity has not been made?
CONTOS: That's a good question. I think one of the largest things I took away from this is the constant tug of war between safety and privacy. And, you know, this is an ethical conversation and technology progresses much faster than we can keep up with it with laws and policies. So yeah, I'm sure Julie, and the Ministers will work that one out for you.
JOURNALIST: Minister, do you have a view on that? When it comes to verification, identification, obviously, you raised it was just ID verification?
ROWLAND: I think that's very important. Clearly, that is what we want to eliminate. But as we discussed in the forum today, there is this unfortunate issue of "phoenixing" where people can appear under different names, put in different aliases. And even though they might be banned, for example, from one dating app, they can reappear on another one, or reappear on the same one. But what we did here was that there is technology available to these dating apps, a sort of a digital fingerprint, and extending that more widely, I think it was generally accepted as the ultimate solution to this issue, because people get banned, they reappear somewhere else. And that undermines the whole role of that verification.
JOURNALIST: Should users have to provide, for example, a driver's licence or a passport, in your signup process or application process?
ROWLAND: Certainly, I understand what you're saying. In some contexts, for example, for certain mobile services and other services, you have to produce a certain number of points for ID. But again, as the dating apps pointed out, and I think all Australians are well aware, given the recent cyber security breaches, they are very reluctant to take on that amount of data, very reluctant to be utilising it. I think we need to balance those privacy concerns.
Again, exactly as Chanel said, there are some good reasons why people would want to be anonymous. But I think the key here is going to be technology – that's where the big opportunity is. These dating apps identified that they are either in the process of developing or refining really good, digital authentication and that is what we would seek to encourage. Exactly as the Safety Commissioner said about the Safety By Design concept, embedding that in the app itself is going to be central.
JOURNALIST: When did you tell them you want to see that action by? Have you given them a calendar deadline as to when you expect...?
ROWLAND: We want everything to happen as quickly as possible. We see this as a first step. I also see that arising out of this, we are going to have a very clear set of milestones for how we would like to implement this going forward, what regulatory options we have. And again, within that, we will look at how much the platform's themselves how much the apps have been incentivised to actually undertake the changes that we need to see made. But I think all Australians expect this to happen as a matter of urgency. I can assure all Australians that the Albanese Government takes this as one of their top priorities of keeping Australians safe.
NATALIE WARD, NSW MINISTER FOR WOMEN’S SAFETY AND THE PREVENTION OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE: Thanks, James, I think it's really important that we acknowledge today has happened. I'm really grateful that we've gotten together. The New South Wales, the Liberals Nationals Government wrote to, Bronnie Taylor and I wrote to our federal counterparts calling on them to convene a Roundtable today because we've seen tragic deaths from people who've met through online apps. I'm pleased that we've come together on this because good ideas should be shared. And women's safety and the prevention of domestic and sexual violence is a bipartisan issue.
It’s pleasing that we've all come together today. We have called for a number of things, including more transparency, including verification of identification. If you're on an app, you should be who you say you are. And we've seen issues with people shutting down accounts, and setting up another account, and just rewarding bad behaviour. We want to see those tightened up and it's pleasing to see that the apps are open to those ideas. We're also keen to see some minimum standards. And in New South Wales, we believe that this is one piece in our armoury. And you should be able to have information accessible to you if someone is badly behaved or someone has a criminal record of domestic violence. We think that should be open and in New South Wales. I was of course, we have our Right to Ask schemes so you can find out information about who it is you meeting online, just as you should be safe here offline, you should be safe online as well. So I'm pleased that we can come together on this today, we'd like to see some of those things implemented. Of course, this is the beginning of the discussion. But we think the apps have really stepped up and it was pleasing to see some of the great initiatives that they already have in place. But we certainly believe that keeping people safe standing on line, we need to do everything we can to prevent further deaths, which is why we call for this roundtable to happen.
JOURNALIST: … doesn't deal with their first meeting, when you can sign a start date, say that you've been in a relationship? How do you want to deal with that?
WARD: That's why we've called for this Roundtable so at that point, where you are entering the dating app where you're meeting someone, you actually can get some verification or some more robust understanding from the app itself, that the person you're meeting is who they say they are. There's other opportunities for good reporting. But making sure that people are well behaved and rewarding those apps that do encourage good behaviour. There's no perfect screening tool. Everyone knows that. But we've called for this because we think more can be done at the outset, at that early stage. And more can be done once you're in a relationship and information is power.
WARD: Yeah, so we think that minimum standards could include identification, verification, or more robust understanding around not being able to shut down accounts, not being able to hide behind unmatching someone keeping a record of those interactions online, and being able to have really good reporting. That should be across the board, if you want to run an app in Australia for a dating site. We call on the Federal Government to join us in that, of course, there's some nuances around that. But we're working closely with them.
INMAN-GRANT: The Basic Online Safety Expectations lays out the minimum standard.
WARD: Yeah, so I think there's been examples, or we've seen that people have just shut down accounts and set up a new one, and have been able to hide behind their bad behaviour. We've seen people with multiple domestic violence convictions or breaches of AVOs, getting onto dating sites and not having that history, there is something that we believe is just making women and people on dating apps vulnerable, and we want to see robust tightening of that information. So who you meet online is who they say they are.
JOURNALIST: Is there a single app that isn't failing them?
WARD: I'm not the expert on which apps are doing well and which aren't. But we heard from Bumble today that they have a robust process for reporting. And once the reporting is done, and they've dealt with it, they actually follow up with the person who's made the report to make sure that they get information, they get counselling, they get assistance. So there's good behaviour like that, that we think everyone should be, we should rise everyone up to that good behaviour standard. And we think that some of those who don't condone that, who don't allow for robust opportunities to verify identification to make sure bad behaviour is not rewarded and you can't just set up another account, is where the absolute baseline should be.