Transcript - Interview with ABC AM with Sabra Lane

SABRA LANE, HOST: The Federal Government is vowing to take on the social media giants for allowing the spread of lies and misinformation following the Bondi attack and church stabbings. The Federal Communications Minister is Michelle Rowland. Minister, thanks for joining AM.
What will it take for the social media giants X and Meta to stop hosting misinformation and to stop terrible videos like the bishop stabbing earlier this week from being on their platforms and shared with people?
MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Well, there's two aspects here: the first is the existing powers that exist under the Online Safety Act. eSafety is empowered to issue notices to the platforms to remove certain content. The type of content we're talking about here includes what is called class one material. So, it's material that depicts real violence, has a high degree of impact, and is likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult. eSafety also has the ability and does exercise very carefully its interactions with the platforms and with law enforcement agencies to get this material taken down quickly. For example, on Saturday, eSafety set up a team, very quickly and worked with the platforms to get a lot of material taken down. But, unfortunately, we know that the scale spread and the speed at which this occurs is one that is very challenging.
eSafety has actually issued further notices to X and Meta about removing content. I think in that sense, your listeners can be assured that eSafety is doing its job and it is doing this in a way that utilises their graduated powers, and does have more powers available to them.
Misinformation though is a separate issue. There is currently only a voluntary industry code in place regarding the obligations on the platforms to detect, trace and prevent the spread of misinformation on their platforms. That is the key issue here, and that's why the Government last year announced that we would introduce laws regarding mis and disinformation, putting that onus on the platforms to do more. This is a long-running issue that was actually recommended by the ACCC in its Digital Platforms Inquiry some years ago, followed up with recommendations from the ACMA, and it's necessary –
LANE: But that was put on hold last year because of the pushback that you were getting. So, what are you going to do now?
ROWLAND: Well, to be clear, we have been taking the time to consider the views that have been raised and also consulting as part of this drafting process. It is a significant piece of work, and we know that from our interactions with overseas regulators, this is one that has been grappling those regulators around the world.
It is fair to say that all stakeholders who have been solidly engaged with this process say that the status quo is not good enough. We are working to get this bill right and to introduce that this year. The key issue here is about transparency of the systems and processes of the platforms.
LANE: What are you prepared to do though to stop, to immediately stop this? Because as you've seen in the last week, this is causing real world harm.
ROWLAND:  It certainly is. And we are working very carefully with eSafety under the powers that we have, but also engaging with the platforms who have, as I said, a voluntary industry code. The problem with that is that it lacks enforcement and it lacks those sanctions or non-compliance, and that is the reason why that's necessary.
LANE. So, again, coming back to the original question, what is it going to take for the social media giants to do the right thing?
ROWLAND: They will need to comply with existing law. That is already their obligation. eSafety has issued, as I said, those notices. We have existing laws and existing abilities under the Online Safety Act in respect of the removal of information.
But what it will take is a solid piece of legislative action, and that's what the Government's committed to doing. And that needs to be backed up by significant fines, not only to incentivise compliance, but to demonstrate the seriousness of this area. Because if we needed to see any case study about what can happen when misinformation spreads at speed and scale, we only need to look at what happened in Western Sydney the other night - the destruction of damage to public property, threats to life and health.
We know the platforms have incredible powers and abilities to be able to examine content on their platforms. Their algorithms are opaque. They need to do more. And that's precisely what the Government has been pursuing with our mis and disinformation rules.
LANE: So, significant fines, what kind of money are you possibly talking about?
ROWLAND: We're looking at a substantial increase on what's already in the Online Safety Act. So, not only a large amount, so, for example, a $3 million fine for an offence and an on-going fines, but a percentage of turnover as well. We know that the revenues of some of these online platforms exceed those of some nations. So, it needs to be a meaningful and substantial penalty system that's put in place.
LANE: How will you get these changes through Parliament, given some critics are saying that it will stifle free speech? And yet, on the other hand, you've got some saying that you're not moving fast enough.
ROWLAND: Well, let's be very clear. We announced last year, picking up from where the previous Government had announced that it would do precisely this – in terms of having enforceable rules relating to mis and disinformation.
We conducted an open public consultation process; we are taking that on. We appreciate that this is an area that is novel in the sense that this hasn't been done before in Australia, but the need is real and urgent.  We know that some 70% of Australians are concerned about the spread of mis and disinformation and the real-world impacts that it has.
And we also know, particularly in the context of Meta's announcement of withdrawal of news in Australia, looking at our Canadian counterparts, for example, and the proliferation of mis and disinformation on those platforms is one that is very real.
We've been working closely with stakeholders, with those who want to engage on the crossbench, and, as I said, there is not a serious stakeholder who has made a contribution to this process, who does not have the view that doing nothing is actually an option. Doing nothing is not an option, as far as this Government is concerned.
We are determined to get this introduced because we can see the harms that are being caused now. We know that these recommendations were made some time ago, we know Australians are concerned, and we know what the impacts are.
LANE: Minister, thanks for your time.
ROWLAND: Pleasure.