Transcript: Opening remarks, International Institute of Communications

MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS, HON MICHELLE ROWLAND MP: Well, firstly, colleagues, thank you very much for this opportunity. It is a great privilege to be here and I'm the Communications Minister in a new Government. We are just about halfway through our first term. I have a background in communications law, and really want to again, publicly thank you, for hosting this. It is very important for civil society for thought leaders and for people in this sector, in what is very much a global grappling of these issues, to be able to gather together in forums like this, because we are solving world problems, and really that's the aim here.

I think it'd be useful to start, firstly, with how we started in Australia with a desire to address these issues of mis and disinformation. It is almost exactly two years ago, of course, that Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine occurred; it was that time as well that the former (Australian) Government publicly announced that they would be introducing laws to address mis and disinformation, having found a solid evidence base, which, of course, is still there and continues to be reinforced. In that announcement by the previous Government, they specifically referenced the issues of mis and disinformation, and the harms that they cause in the context of that invasion.

Like-minded liberal democracies should be taking cues from one another. I think that is the first thing that I'd like to note. And whilst Australia's geopolitical interests largely lie, for obvious reasons, in the Indo-Pacific, one of the reasons why I'm here, on a very serious trip here in Europe, with some senior people in my Department, the Australian Mission has done a lot of work on this on this trip because we really see this as an opportunity to understand how the EU’s thought leadership, its law leadership, and its thinking is developing in this area.

So, what I thought I would do is sort of take you through what might be some myths and some facts associated with the context for where we are in Australia. The first is that the internet has never been an unregulated space; the notion that it's been some wild west -  that regulators are only now or in recent past choosing to come in and regulate - is not true. In Australia, at least, we've always had laws that have applied to the online space.

So, the defamation, be it our anti-discrimination laws, be it our competition rules on misleading or deceptive conduct,  have always been there. What has changed, similar to, as Dr. Posetti said, is that the harms and the speed and scale of harms to spread, and to manifest themselves in ways that we did not imagine twenty five years ago, is what has changed. I think it is said too often that it's impossible for laws to keep up with technology; we're always behind, we're always playing catch-up. I like to look at this in a different frame; the frame goes back to principle that the first priority of Government is to keep its citizens safe, and part of that is keeping people safe when they are vulnerable and exposed to what is, what we are terming in our in our exposure draft (bill) as seriously harmful mis and disinformation.

So, we are setting, and again, utilising an existing Australian criminal context. It needs to be seriously harmful- so it's a high threshold. And it is also that high threshold that we apply to relatively recent laws that have come in, in Australia - our Online Safety Act, which  came into effect in January 2022. Many of you will know about our Agency, the eSafety Commissioner, as well and the powers that are provided under that, in respect of identifying harmful child cyber bullying and online abuse, and the remedies that are available there.

So, my first point is, that whilst this has never been in an unregulated space, the evidence has been growing in Australia. I'm sure it has been growing in other countries, but I will explain how it has manifested in Australia.

In 2019, our competition regulator, the ACCC published its findings after a very detailed review of digital platforms. The Digital Platforms Inquiry highlighted a number of points; some of you may have heard of the News Media Bargaining Code, which I'll park for a minute, but we could discuss, in the context of public interest journalism, and the threats to that. But one aspect that was identified was the need for governments to take action to address the rise of harmful mis and disinformation.

This is in 2019, so this is, before we were, you know, we may have thrown around AI as something exotic, that not a lot of people understood. But I certainly agree with Dr. Posetti’s summation that AI really has been that explosive piece of fuel that all of a sudden has focused people's minds on, ‘I can't trust what I see, I can't trust video’, whereas previously, video used to be evidence that something had happened - you can't trust it anymore. You can't trust photos, and also not being able to trust what you hear anymore either; I think is quite a new phenomenon.

So, I think that has certainly in the last - I'd say twelve months, really heightened people's appreciation of why this is an issue. So, there was that evidence base from the Digital Platforms Inquiry - our regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, also undertook a number of studies in this area. In Australia, we have a well understood system within our comms space of industry and regulators working together and what we like to call a co-regulatory framework. So often in the broadcasting sector, and the telco sector, for example, industry is given the opportunity to devise some rules; it is not marking your own homework, they need to either be registered with the regulator, and there are avenues for enforcement.

The Government of the day gave the opportunity for the sector, which is known as DIGI in Australia, to devise its own code on mis and disinformation - so this was a voluntary code. Assessments were later done of the efficacy of that code and it was concluded, by the regulator, that this voluntary code was inadequate on its own, for quite obvious reasons. The lack of enforcement, the lack of penalties, sanctions, and so forth, to give that teeth.

I think that is a clear issue and Dr. Posetti and I were discussing this earlier. It's one thing to have regulation, but it actually has to be effective regulation. It can't simply be a principles-based piece of regulation. Of course, it will be based on principles, but we need to have a deliverable. And again, this is very consistent with the Australian Government's approach. The Prime Minister has given all of his Ministers one instruction, and that is to deliver - you actually have to show delivery.

So, we know also from the work that regulator has done that 70% of Australians are concerned about harmful mis and disinformation, so this is publicly known as a concern. Just running through that, we've never been in an unregulated space, we have the evidence base that this needs to be taken forward, and where are we now? We decided to take up the previous Government's initiative here.

We wanted to be very open and transparent, because we know this is a novel piece of legislation. We know that the EU has had instruments, but to varying degrees, how effective have they been is something that we'd, been interested in hearing about. So, we issued a Draft Consultation Bill and we are very grateful for the level of consultation that has happened to date, because it's enabling us to focus on probably the key area here - which is how do we align addressing these harms with preserving the values that we hold dear, as a liberal democracy?

We don't have a Bill of Rights in Australia, but equally, the platforms are not subject to the constitutional limitations that we have either, these entities that have wealth that’s bigger than the GDP of many nations. And I think it's worth, just in closing here on this part, I think it's worth reiterating that again, whilst this has never been an unregulated space, the platform's themselves know their users best, they have the most amount of information of anyone in this equation, and they do have a responsibility to do more.

They are curating content on their platforms every millisecond of every day, already. What we are seeking to do through this legislation is to do two things: it’s been very instructive over the last few days engaging with various Commissioners. Two key points: accountability and transparency - having accountability to a regulator for what they are doing and to their users, for the policies that they say they will already adhere to, and how they deal with misinformation, and the transparency, so that the regulator can see what they're doing.

The regulator has, and the Government of Australia, and me as Minister, have no interest in the individual pieces of content, what we are interested in are the systems and processes that the platforms are utilising in order to meet their own representation as to how they will deal with mis and disinformation.

Maybe, if I just end up with one point, as you said - and I'm very keen for people's views on this - also, having practiced in the media and technology space and with a particular interest in privacy as well.

It's been a relatively short time that privacy law has applied to the private sector in Australia, but 25 years ago, we were all very ready to hand over our personal information to big tech because we wanted a free email address. And we did this without limitation in many cases, and then we all turned around and said: ‘how come everyone is monetizing my personal information except me?’ But no one wanted to be, what I call “that guy”. No one wanted to be that guy who stifled innovation, no one wanted to be that Government or that regulator that stopped these platforms from actually delivering a public good to people making our lives more effective, more entertaining, and more connected.

We are now at the point where we have such a lack of transparency and accountability. We can't turn back the clock, but we have to do what we can now. The view of the Australian Government is that doing nothing in this space is not an option.

We are determined to do what we can to make - and by the way, a lot of people talk about the online world and the offline world - there's one world, there's just one world and it has a very large online element. We are determined to keep our citizens safe, we are determined along with like-minded allies around the world, to cooperate in that objective.And we are also determined to uphold the values of free speech and the other values that too often we take for granted in our democracies.

Thank you.