Television interview - 10 News First

NARELDA JACOBS, HOST: Dating apps have been told to better protect users from sexual violence or face government regulation. The ultimatum comes after a national roundtable of experts met earlier this year to address an alarming number of incidents. Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland joins us now. Minister, thanks for joining us. How prevalent is violence facilitated by these apps and what sort of violence are we talking about it?

MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Unfortunately, we know that some three in four users of these dating apps have experienced some sort of technology-related abuse. They include either sharing of intimate images, stalking, or other perpetrators seeking to do harm to them. So, we are very alive to this risk. We know that dating apps are now mainstream. They're actually the most popular way of meeting a new partner in Australia. So, we need to ensure that people using these apps - that Australians are kept safe. At the same time, we appreciate that a lot of people are using them. I encourage people to go to also to get some really good tips on choosing a dating app that suits them as well.

JACOBS: Well, Minister, what is the ultimatum that you've given to dating apps and platforms?

ROWLAND: What we've said today is having engaged with the industry since January, meeting with them on several occasions and being very highly engaged with the sector, is that we expect them to do better in some key areas. We know that there are some apps who have taken more steps than others in terms of keeping their users safe and we want to see a general lift across the entire sector.

What we are doing today is we are seeking a voluntary code of practice, which we know the industry is well aware of. We have put them on notice about this and we appreciate that this is really a collective effort between the industry, between government and civil society to keep Australians safe. We expect that there will be some key elements in this voluntary code. We will be looking to the eSafety Commissioner and our existing resources to make sure that it fits a purpose, that there's proper review of it, and that ultimately, it's delivering on the goal of keeping Australian users safe.

JACOBS: Is one of the concerns that predators can use dating apps anonymously? Once they cancel or delete their profile, you can't track them. Is that one of the biggest concerns?

ROWLAND: That is one of the concerns, but at the same time, a number of stakeholders raised at the roundtable and subsequently that there are some good reasons why people choose to be anonymous online. But being anonymous doesn't mean that you're immune from being accountable for your actions and it doesn't mean that the dating apps are absolved from taking action in this area either. That's one of the key concerns.

But also, in terms of vulnerable groups. We heard at the roundtable that people with a disability were a particularly vulnerable cohort. We heard from users and from victim survivors that when complaints are made, they are not properly acted on or they don't have a resolution. So, these are some of the key areas that the code will cover. We want this in place by the middle of next year and we know that already government intervention in this area is having a positive effect. With some of those apps already increasing their safety and security features, that's a good thing to see.

JACOBS: So, the code would be a voluntary thing within the industry itself. What would government regulation look like if the code wasn't in place by the deadline that you've given mid next year?

ROWLAND: Some of the options available to us are direct regulation in this area, we can also legislate in this area. We also have powers under the Online Safety Act, which could be expanded. But what we are seeking to do is what is timely, what will get the best outcomes in the immediate term, and also recognising that this is an innovative industry, that a lot of Australians use it. We want to strike that fine balance between recognising innovation, letting the sector do better, but also making it crystal clear that as a Government, we will act if Australians are not kept safe.

JACOBS: Minister, what are some examples of it being done successfully? Is there anything overseas?

ROWLAND: There are some examples overseas where complaints handling is being done better. There are some examples where other technologies, such as AI, have been deployed by these dating apps to identify different types of behaviours. But really, this is the first time that there has been this level of engagement with Australian Government and regulators. We are building on that. We have requested data sets from the operators, and this has helped to inform us reach this position now.

We want to ensure that Australians are kept safe, and we want to do everything we can and be a best practice country. That is why we are starting with a graduated approach of a voluntary code. We are always looking to examples in other jurisdictions, but ultimately, we want to do the best by the Australian people. Let them utilise these apps if they so choose. They are very popular, but at the same time, this comes with risks. People need to be aware of them, but above all else, the industry needs to do better.

JACOBS: All right, Minister for Communications, Michelle Rowland. Thanks for joining us on Midday.

ROWLAND: Pleasure.