Transcript - ABC Radio Melbourne, Mornings with Raf Epstein

RAF EPSTIEN, HOST: Michelle Rowland joins us, she is the Communications Minister in Anthony Albanese’s Federal Labor Government. Good morning.
EPSTIEN: Elon Musk does look and sound pretty defiant. Do you need to threaten his employees with jail?
ROWLAND: I think we need to step back for a moment and understand where we are right now. The issue here is that eSafety, acting in accordance with a law of Australia, has issued removal notices about certain content, and this type of content is the worst of the worst. It's class 1 material that depicts real violence - it's got a high degree of impact, and in the case of the Western Sydney stabbing, it is subject to a terrorism designation as well.
I think what we need to step back and acknowledge two things. Firstly, this is a law of Australia being implemented by a duly constituted independent regulator. And secondly, this is a matter that is before the courts right now. Only a couple of days ago, the court determined that there would be an interim injunction in relation to the matter. What that meant is that this material would continue to be required to not be shown. The court's going to hear this at some stage today, we expect on the interim and a final hearing at a later date.
I think the key thing here to step back and understand the context for your listeners is that this is an independent regulator implementing a law of Australia.
EPSTIEN: Even if people accept everything that you are saying, just as a matter of practicality, the videos are still there. The videos are still there on other sites like Facebook. Don't you need to threaten jail to get big companies like this to listen?
ROWLAND: In terms of enforcement, this is a specific area that we are currently examining under the Online Safety Act. As Minister, I have brought forward by a year the review of that Act because although it's only been operational for some two years – the new and emerging harms that we now see are ones that need to be addressed now. It's ones that are being grappled with by Governments and regulators around the world. In terms of enforcement and penalties, there's been a lot of commentary and a lot of questions.
EPSTIEN: Are you interested in the potential for jail terms?
ROWLAND: Look, I'm interested in ensuring that we get not only a robust review in which everyone has their say on this matter, but also that we achieved the outcomes. Part of those outcomes, we know, having a look at other regulators, such as our competition regulator, who often takes on very high stakes litigation here, that we want to get outcomes, and the outcomes here are about keeping Australians safe. That means ensuring that the content that should not be available, and certainly shouldn't be available to certain cohorts is not made available, and where it is made available, is taken down in accordance with the law.
EPSTIEN: The courts asked Twitter, part of this process you're talking about is Twitter was asked to take down the video everywhere. It was, in effect, a global ban. Elon Musk was saying on his own site that this means any one Government gets to control global publishing online, and that was a global order from the Australian court. He's got a point there, doesn't he?
ROWLAND: Well, this is the subject matter of the litigation. This is the live question, so I'm reluctant to comment on that. But I will say, that the Government fully backs eSafety in the actions that they are taking. This type of content is the kind that simply should not be viewed. It is class 1 material that depicts real violence, and there are sound reasons for why that content should not be viewed. I also note your comment that this is still available on some sites. I should point out to your listeners that eSafety issues notices in respect of where that content exists at a URL, at a given point, point in time.
If your listeners are seeing this content, I urge them not to share it, and I urge them to report it to the platform and to
EPSTIEN: I would support you urging that, but the fact of the web is you just rebadge it and post it under a different web address or URL or whatever. That gets back to my point about jail - you might urge people to do that, you might want that to happen, but nothing's going to happen until the penalties are tougher.
ROWLAND: Well, this is why we've brought forward this review of the Online Safety [Act]. We know that in some jurisdictions - and if you look at the European Union for example - they take into account the fact that some of these online platforms have wealth that are bigger than some countries. They are highly litigious, with deep pockets. The way in which penalties impact on these people is not a designated quantum, but often it is in terms of percentages of revenue, for example. They are very large, and they have situations where people who are directors or otherwise executives may be liable as well. So, these are all matters that are being examined in a methodical and transparent way, as I announced in November last year, and that work is ongoing. I encourage all of your listeners who are interested to be part of that as well.
EPSTIEN: What's the difference between you, as the Australian Government - democratically elected - what's the difference between you asking for material being removed or eSafety asking for it to be removed? What's the difference between that and China wanting something not on Twitter because it's criticising the Chinese government?
ROWLAND: The difference is because we have a system of classification law in this country which has been long standing, and that is what the eSafety framework is designed to operate within.
We have determined as a society, as elected Governments - and I should point out that this Act was passed under the previous Government - we have a law in place that says there are certain types of content which for our own purposes in Australia and for very sound reasons, should not be viewed. For example, I doubt any of your listeners would think that it is acceptable for child sexual abuse material to be available online. I doubt that any of your listeners are not worried about the fact that these platforms have systems and processes that not only serve up inappropriate content, but manipulate their own systems in a way that harms vulnerable people, including children. We've seen that kind of behaviour in everything from recommender systems pushing harmful, misogynistic rubbish and eating disorder videos that are aimed at children.
I also just want to make this point in relation to those issues I just mentioned. A lot of people, especially in the last couple of weeks, may be feeling that there is an overwhelming weight of online harms at the moment. I want to reassure your listeners and all Australians that this Government is approaching these matters in a very coordinated and methodical way.
We are engaging across Governments, including with the Attorney-General, our national security agencies, the AFP, social services, the impact on women, young people and education. We have a program of work that is in place, looking at everything from scams to the impact of artificial intelligence and the proliferation of deep fakes. All of this work has been continuing across Government.
I look forward to our security agencies, and the head of the AFP making their address today, where they specifically highlight the work that they are doing. We should be reassured also that we have the best intelligence agencies in the world. All of them are doing their bit within this framework to help keep Australians safe.
EPSTIEN: Sammy J had a chat to your Shadow, David Coleman, from the Opposition. The Opposition have once again said they would like to see a trial of age verification on social media. eSafety, who are in court with Twitter - they've spoken about the possibility of age verification - is it a good idea to trial that?
ROWLAND: We are certainly scoping at the moment across various Departments around age assurance, and eSafety has been working in that regard as well. We also want to understand through this pilot how it could be used beyond questions of just pornography or adult content, but other types of content as well.
EPSTIEN. So, does that mean the pilot is going ahead?
ROWLAND: We are scoping that right now. We actually never ruled out a pilot, but we also have in place a system under the Online Safety Act where the eSafety Commissioner has the power to ensure that codes are developed by industry. That second phase of codes is focused on pornography. A set of codes has been completed regarding child sexual abuse material already.

You talk about the Opposition here. They have been perpetuating this myth that somehow this is the industry marking its own homework - that is completely false. This is overseen by eSafety. There are powers within an Act which, as I said, was passed under the previous Government.
We continue to work with eSafety and between Departments to ensure that this pilot is scoped properly so we can use it beyond questions of just adult content.
EPSTIEN: Minister, just before you go, the 3G networks are going to be shut off from mid-year. We have spoken to you about trying to make sure that once the 3G goes off, people will still be able to make Triple Zero calls. Is there progress on ensuring that can happen?
ROWLAND: There is progress, and whilst it has been deeply concerning to the Government that there has been a lack of industry coordination in this respect and the need to support a safer 3G switchover, I can update your listeners on a couple of things.
Firstly, as my Department has previously reported, we had a number of devices that are capable operating of when 3G is switched off, but these devices will only be able to dial Triple Zero if the 3G network is there. Once the switch over happens, they wouldn't be able to call Triple Zero. We've had industry turning its mind to this with a greater sense of urgency than before. Those numbers have bounced around to be over a million devices at one stage, but I'm pleased to inform you that that is now down to 400,000.
That is still a high number - the urgency is still there, but establishing a Working Group with industry who have been cooperating with Government and with my Department, we are seeing those numbers come down.
There are two things that I’d like you and your listeners to know. Firstly, Telstra has set up a new text service. If your customers are with Telstra, they can text the number ‘3’, that’s the numeral ‘3’ to 3498, and they can find out whether their device will be compatible to be able to call Triple Zero after the switchover. Today, the industry is also launching a new website with information about the switchover. It is - so, I'm pleased to see the industry is much more coordinated than it was initially, and progress is being made. It is still urgent, and we will continue to do everything necessary to ensure this happens in a safe way.
EPSTIEN: Thanks so much for your time.
ROWLAND: Pleasure.