Transcript - Media conference - Melbourne, Victoria

JIM MULLAN, CEO AMAZE:  Welcome to Amaze. We are the peak body in Victoria supporting autistic people and the broader autistic community. We've been around for almost 60 years, and we were established over that time by a a group of parents who couldn't find services for their kids. We have grown over that period of time, and, I suppose, over that 60‑year period, we've been most known for our work in the development of policy and advocacy, I'm very, very happy to see that Victoria is the first State in the country to have a State Autism Plan, also the first State in the country to have an Autism Education Plan for kids.


So that's been the primary focus of why we've become more active, I suspect, and on a proactive basis. So, we're now involved in more. We're developing initiatives and projects to support our policy positions. It has become more of our work, and we've been less passive, perhaps, then we have in years gone by. We're focussed very heavily on the conversation around the NDIS, around their education, employment, health, mental health, and clearly the opportunity to be involved in the creation of these kind of resources is central to our work, our community, [indistinct] autistic people and the broader autism community; forums, groupings, social groupings, all appear online.


This is just a means of protecting the next generation of young autistic people coming through that process, because that's not a reversing trend. So hence, we're here, and hence we're having a conversation.


JOURNALIST: Do you find that the dangers that young autistic people, people with autism, face online are different from everyone else? What are you sort of seeing there, what are the dangers there?


MULLAN: Well, I think we understand that young autistic people can potentially be at greater risk than the general population because of the way that they engage with the process. So, there are the accompanying dangers around that.


I mean, I have to say we saw some stuff in The Herald yesterday about autistic people and the link to a program that helped identify terrorists, which is incredibly worrying, because the reality is that's not predicated on any real solid evidence that we can find. So, we're always aware of the potential relationship around the perception of this, and the reality of it.


The truth is that their engagement is different; the way they engage is different; the way they participate is different. And understanding that nuanced approach is part of what we're trying to unpack in the creation of these resources.


MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS:  This is a really amazing opportunity to see how the work of eSafety interacts with some of these bottom‑up projects, and just understanding the way in which so many people and families living with autism have a very positive online experience. It's a forum where a lot of people can really engage and be active, and be social, but at the same time there come risks.


I think that is one of the key drivers of why we have eSafety and why in last week's Federal Budget we quadrupled funding for eSafety to $132 million over four years. That's dealing not only with the implementation of the Online Safety Act, the Cyberbullying, and the Cyber Review Scheme, but also new and emerging harms. This includes the potential through AI and deep fakes, for example, making sure that the take‑down regime and investigations are well‑managed.


But also, part of the program here is ensuring inclusiveness and the safety for some of our most vulnerable people. It has been a real delight to understand the way in which the work of eSafety and collaboration with Amaze is really making a difference to lives. I really appreciate the engagement here and how what you've actually been able to do here, can feed into the work of eSafety and the great work that Julie and her investigations team are doing.


I think it reinforces that importance of certainty of funding to enable these kinds of innovations that are keeping all Australians safe, including people and families living with autism.


MULLAN: My observation would be that COVID has changed the world. We all live online in a way that we didn't before the pandemic. The reality is that access to those platforms actually reinforced the education of lots of kids, and autistic kids during that period, because that’s how they learn, that's how we live. This is not a reversing trend. You know, we're not going backwards from this point.


The reality is, and we would argue this about most of the resources we create, I think the resources that have been created have a universal value. I think for almost any parent of any young person who is looking to step into that space understand that, and understand how to keep themselves safe in that space. I think this works beyond our community, so I think it's a reflection of the way that these things have been developed, and that's sort of experienced with most of the resources that we create for autistic people and for the community.


JULIE INMAN GRANT, ESAFETY COMMISSIONER: I do have to say that Amaze has definitely lived up to their name, and the resources they created through the online safety crowd is simply amazing, and I think it reinforces all the positives of online engagement, and confidence and community and connection. Which is how now so many in the autistic community [inaudible] and I hundred per cent agree that COVID really supercharged that reinforcement particularly for young people  - that their online and offline lives are not separate, they're intertwined. So, for almost three years, they learned, they explored, they created, and they connected through online means. And you know, we were sort of hoping ‑ as you know, we saw doubling and troubling of all forms of abuse over COVID. We thought it would plateau, but unfortunately, we're seeing a doubling of cyberbullying, of 70 per cent increases here of risking and doubling child sexual exploitation and sexual extortion targeting 18 to 24‑year‑olds.


This is going to continue, and that's obviously why we're so grateful and so pleased that we have been fully funded, that we can plan, that we can work ahead, that we can anticipate the challenges that are ahead of us, and we can really plan to deal with these new volumes.


But what I love about the grants program is that I feel that it has allowed a thousand flowers to bloom. There's so much innovation and creativity in the NGO sector here and to be able to give these to an organisation that is working on co‑design, has developed really authentic resources that are not only useful for those in the autistic community, but their carers and their parents.


I actually learned a lot looking at the resources, and I applied it to my own kids in terms of what does healthy gaming look like, and when does it veer into the lane of ‘unhealthy’, and what are the signs, because sometimes there is a really fine line.


JOURNALIST: Julie, so what does the, I guess, the quadrupling of funding mean for you; is it more about keeping up with what's going on now, or will you be able to expand and do different things? I guess what's the situation now, I'm leading to?


INMAN GRANT: Well, we're actually going through a period of re‑alignment, where we are reorganising ourselves, so that we can, you know, ensure that the priorities and things we're focused on align with the Minister's Statement Of Expectations. It's always going to be helping ensure that our complaint schemes -- that we're delivering that compassionate citizen service, that we're testing all our powers to the fullest ability, and as the Minister said, we're now starting to see more reports around deep fakes to our image‑based abuse scheme. We've seen a total changing of demographics, so image‑based abuse tended to be very female, women and girls reporting, and it's now 84 per cent young males experiencing sexual extortion.


So, that's changed over the course of two years. We're testing our powers. You've probably seen that we're right in the middle of the cultural wars, when it comes to protecting some trans voices online. We treat every report objectively. We have an objective test and a threshold that we have to meet, but we also have to recognise that there are certain populations and marginalised communities that are going to be targeted disproportionately, and that does deserve special consideration, and we talk a lot about that in the lead‑up to the Voice. I mean, we see every year with the Indigenous round at the AFL that racist and online hate spikes. What we saw with the marriage plebiscite was not only the tenor and tone, but the prevalence of abuse against the LGBTQI+ community increased. So, we need to be on the front foot in terms of understanding what different communities are experiencing, and how it's been experienced, and to apply our resources accordingly to help those that are the most targeted and the most disadvantaged.


JOURNALIST: And I guess, how are you seeing the take‑down scheme working at the moment? I mean I know that in ‑ you do issue quite a few of them, but I think my interest is, is Twitter still being responsive, despite the fact that they've gotten rid of most of their staff?


INMAN GRANT: Both the Minister and myself have expressed concern about Twitter not being responsive and how can you be responsive when you’ve eviscerated not only your Trust and Safety team, but your public policy team? So, I started with Twitter in 2014 as the first Australian representative in the company looking after Trust and Safety, public policy and philanthropy. Our primary job was to be the interface with law enforcement, with Government. That function is totally gone here, and these are people who are actually representing the interests of Australians.


I can't tell you how many times I said to the folks at Twitter, "Well, you know, we all stand for freedom of expression and that's why we're here."  I joined after the Arab Spring, but the First Amendment doesn't exist everywhere, and when it starts veering into the lane of online abuse, targeting specific marginalised voices, you're actually suppressing speech; you're creating a space that isn't safe for people to participate in.


So I am concerned, I continue to be concerned. We're in the middle of a regulatory process through the Basic Online Safety Expectations, so I cannot say anymore. But through our fairness and due diligence processes, we continue to go back and ask clarifying questions to make sure that we're understanding that the information they're giving us is factual and accurate and fulsome. We’re continuing to ask some of those questions.


JOURNALIST: Minister, is that something you can speak to as well, just to [indistinct]?


ROWLAND: Absolutely. I wrote to Twitter earlier in the year, and outlined those concerns about whether they were able to maintain their obligations under Australian law with their staff being pulled out. I'm yet to receive a response to that. But I can assure you that the Government is very closely engaged with the eSafety Commissioner, and as the Office undertakes its powers under the Online Safety Act, again, I could not be clearer that we do not rule out the potential for further regulation within this area, or at least enforcement of the existing regulatory regime  in the event that they are failing to live up to the expectations of industry. I think the Commissioner would back me up on this, and I think this is a shared responsibility; we've made that very clear. This is across Government, industry, citizens, civil society. We expect them to do their part. But it will go beyond words, because we are ensuring that as we prosecute the existing regulatory regime, we have a basis for whatever action we take. As the Commissioner said, they are in the middle of the process right now that involves the platforms, and we'll have more to say on that soon when that process concludes.


JOURNALIST: Not to sort of harp on Twitter, but one of the things that happened last week was that they were having animal torture videos come up in search auto suggestions and things like that, and that seems to be like a basic breaking of the functionality of their website, and now, they took it down after people started reporting it, but people were saying that kids knew about this before adults did, as often happens with stuff online. So, stuff like that, just basic things, seems to be breaking the website at the moment, and it seems to be a course for terms – particularly like if you’re aiming to protect children online, and the kids are the ones that are finding this before adults do, it's a real cause for concern as well.


INMAN GRANT: I think people forget that there's all sorts on Twitter, and I remember one of the first conversations I had with Apple about two months into the job is, "Why is Facebook on your App Store? Why are Facebook and Twitter only four years old plus?". One of their terms of service say 13, but you know, there's porn all over Twitter. They kind of said, "Well, it's a business continuity app," and I'm like, "No, it really isn't." So, they went back. I believe now, Twitter is 18 plus, and Facebook is 13 plus. But I think, anything goes these days on Twitter. Look at Libs of TikTok. They're weaponising,  what do you expect, I've said this before, but you know, you let sewer rats, and you let all these people who have been suspended back on the platform while you get rid of the Trust and Safety people and processors, and, those were really dedicated people who look at terrible content and the worst of humanity every day. To be treated with that kind of disrespect and think you're going to get a better, more engaging product that protects the brand is pretty crazy, and of course brands are walking with their feet, and people aren't signing up for Twitter Blue. Nobody really wants to be on a platform that feels toxic or feels unsafe.


JOURNALIST: You've sent your Age Verification Roadmap to the Minister, thinking at the end of March. Do we have a new sort of update on when we can expect to see her report, and her response?


ROWLAND: I think there's two things: firstly, we will be releasing the Report. We are at the moment assessing what was a really significant piece of work by eSafety over a number of years. We're also discussing not only within Government, but also with the eSafety Commissioner some of the international approaches that are happening at the moment; a lot of this is happening in real time. You know that in France there has been movement on this front, but it is still unclear as to implementation.


We’re working through this methodically, and as the Commissioner said, there are a number of streams of this work that actually line up with the Online Safety Act. I think we need to, again, reinforce that the Online Safety Act, and establishing the Office of eSafety is indeed a world first.


We are fortunate that we have a regime in place that is looking at a lot of these and has been looking at a lot of these issues for a long time. In the meantime, I urge people to go to, because there are a plethora of resources there that go to those issues of protecting, especially children, and more vulnerable cohorts online.


I should make it clear; no one wants children to be seeing pornography, and the fact that this is prevalent is not only a cause of concern, but we are looking at the resources we already have. The eSafety Commissioner is currently going through a codes process as well that is focusing on some of the most egregious content but is also going to be looking at pornography as well.


So there are work streams that are on foot already. But we are considering this as a whole within Government, because, of course, we've got other portfolios, we're looking at digital identifiers, so really drawing all this together.


We will do this expeditiously, but we do want to do it with those three things in mind: looking at all the work that's being done across Government, the work and the powers of eSafety right now, and also international developments.


I think it's fair to say if this was an easy task to implement, the world would be doing it by now as well, and we need to really craft this with a careful balance of, for example, another area of Government work, such as the privacy regime, and the data of children.


So, we will be doing this expeditiously, but we will be working through it methodically, and we have every intention of releasing this report in the near future.


INMAN GRANT: Right, we’ve been a long time on the age‑verification journey. I actually started the journey in 2008 when I was with Microsoft. We were going to run an age‑verification pilot here, in Australia, and that was, when in‑person proofing was going to be required with AusPost. But I think you'd agree that the environment has changed, the way that some of the age‑verification technologies are being tested by major platforms, like Instagram, and Yubo and Roblox. 


I guess you would also know that we consulted high and low, we wanted to hear every perspective that was out there. We've led with a principles‑based approach that does take a human rights‑based approach that, is looking at preventing children’s to access, and limit their access to pornography they're not cognitively and developmentally ready for. We also don't want to ‑ we want to ensure that people who are, particularly in the upper teenage years, if they're looking for sexual identity or gender identity information, that they're not precluded from that.


It's a very contextual thing. We're not looking at a blunt‑force type approach, and that wouldn't be something the Minister would support anyway. We're also looking at a holistic approach; we've also said that as well, making sure that we're balancing the three legs of the stool; privacy, security, and safety. We've undertaken technology assessments of things that are out there to make sure that, there are other issues around age estimation and all forms of age assurance around bias and picking up skin tones and other ethnicities.

So it was quite an extensive look at this. We took a principles‑based approach, and in our last consultation was relief. I guess we probably called it kind of a cross‑industry or community discussions that people could see how broad and polarised, frankly, some of these views were and if there's ever going to be a singular consensus position. We wanted to make something that was going to be something that was digestible, but also implementable, and to be able to look at all of the different considerations involved.

JOURNALIST: It's probably getting a bit early to say, but you say that maybe see the Government ID being a part of it rather than ‑ because I think the major concern you have with [indistinct] was that, you know, after what happened with Optus and Medibank and stuff like that, people were putting their Government ID or something into a website?

ROWLAND: Absolutely. I think the Privacy Review has been one of those projects that's been ongoing, but the Attorney‑General is bringing this to a conclusion now, and having a consultation on that response. One of the key areas there is about children's data, and children's access. So, I think it's partly, as the Commissioner said, contextual. We're in an environment in Australia where people are reticent to give over their data. There has been a definite shift in terms of corporate Australia understanding that data they don't need, they should not have. So, how this all fits. This would have been very different to, when I'm sure the eSafety Commissioner started that piece of work, so we are keen to bring this, and we have every intention of bringing this to a conclusion, of releasing the Report. We're doing it methodically and within those parameters, and we understand how important this is. We do not want young people having unfettered access to pornography, we do use our existing powers under the regulatory regime, and we will continue to do that in parallel.