Subjects: Child Safety Online Age Assurance, Labor’s Misinformation Bill
Luke Grant: Now, I want to have a chat this morning to the Shadow Minister for Communications. He’s also the member for Banks in Sydney. And I’m talking here about David Coleman. He spoke through the week about keeping kids safe online, and I thought this was a really important topic. Look, I know there’s a lot going on and I know also that debate is hijacked to a large extent by talk about the Voice, but you can’t let these things just, you know, fade away in the background. He talked about an issue which he called and I agree, one of the defining issues of our era, and that is the issue of child safety online. He said, for a number of years, we’ve seen really disturbing trends in youth mental health. How rights that? Not only here, but of course, around the world. And he says it’s clear that access to inappropriate content for kids is contributing to that. And you would be a brave person to disagree with that. I know around the world people, including the U.S. Surgeon General, he’s talking about these issues and we’ve got to do what we can, can’t we? To keep kids safe online. David Coleman is on the line. Good morning, I hope you’re well.
David Coleman: Good morning Luke. Great to be with you.
Luke Grant: Nice to talk to you again, David. So tell me where we’re up to here. It’s one of those things, isn’t it? One of those really important issues that perhaps at another time would be front and centre. But given the state of the debate, particularly around the Voice and other things, it’s in the background a bit and it shouldn’t be.
David Coleman: Yeah, it’s a hugely important issue Luke, I think every parent worries about this issue and the fact is that kids are accessing a lot of material online that isn’t good for them and it could include adult content, violent content, content about self-harm, a whole range of different types of inappropriate content. And nobody thinks that it’s good for them to be accessing that content. So we all agree on that. So what we’ve got to do as a country is do everything we sensibly can to address that, to try and ensure that kids don’t access that content that’s bad for them and really take action. And what’s happened in the last week is that the eSafety Commissioner, who is the the expert on these issues, has recommended to the Government that they run a trial on what’s called age assurance technology, which is basically about identifying kids and stopping them from accessing bad content. Very sensible recommendation, hugely important issue. For reasons that I cannot understand, the Government is refusing to agree and won’t be implementing the trial of that technology. And I think it’s a disgrace because I think we’ve got to lean forward on this and we’ve got to do everything we can to keep kids safe online.
Luke Grant: 100% agree with you. And this began, didn’t it, a couple of years ago with an inquiry that was, I think, titled Protecting the Age of Innocence? What sort of work, apart from Julie Inman Grant, the eSafety Commissioner, what other work has been done in this area?
David Coleman: Yeah, so it was a parliamentary inquiry chaired by Andrew Wallace, who was actually and then went on to be the Speaker of the Parliament in the last Government. And Andrew is a very decent and conscientious man and he’s very concerned about this issue of what’s happening to kids online. And he chaired this inquiry, which had some very concerning conclusions about kids’ mental health and kids accessing pornography and other inappropriate content. And what the Government did as a result of that inquiry was ask the eSafety Commissioner to conduct a very thorough review of all the technology that’s out there, of how you could do this and what people are doing around the world. And as you said, she spent close to two years looking into this. Now, she gave the report to the Government in March, but the Government never released it until Thursday last week. And on the same day they provided their response to the report. So there was no public debate of this report. There was no public discussion of the recommendations because we didn’t know what they were. And so the Government put out the report and on the same day said we’re not going to follow the key recommendation. And it’s just inexplicable. It doesn’t make any sense at all. And you don’t have to be a PhD in child psychology to work out how significant this issue is. If you raise the issue of kids’ online safety and the impact on kids’ mental health at your local soccer training with parents or a school P&C meeting or anything like that, everyone is worried about this, Luke. It is a real concern and I am just really quite stunned that the Government’s not acting on this recommendation.
Luke Grant: It’s a shame, isn’t it, that an important issue like this is somewhere in the background because of the dominance of the public debate issues around the Voice, around Qatar Airways, and what the Government has or has not done there and their relationship, of course, with Qantas. It’s a shame when all this is going on in the front pages. Really important stuff like this gets not quite, but almost flicked and maybe that goes back to the judgement that people have made in the last couple of weeks evidenced in Newspoll, do you think?
David Coleman: Well, look, I think you’re right, there is a lot going on and clearly the Government’s focus on the Voice is really absorbing a lot of the media attention. But we’ve had a significant amount of coverage of this issue. I talked to your colleague Ray Hadley about this last Friday. I was on ABC TV today talking about this issue, and I’m going to keep talking about it because it’s not going to go away.
Luke Grant: Good.
David Coleman: And if you think about our era, so to speak, Luke, this is the first generation of children in history that have effectively had access to pretty much all of the world’s information and are able to interact with pretty much anyone on the planet. Now, there can be some positive things from access to information, but it could be some very negative things too, and we have to be honest and mature about that. I mean, I’m not anti-technology at all. Technology has many, many good things, and many good things come from technology. But we also have to be honest about the bad things. And there are bad things. And this issue of kids accessing things that are bad for their mental health is a massive concern. And if you’ve got a decision to either act or not act on something like this, clearly you act. This is a big deal. And you don’t just refuse to act, which is unfortunately what the Government’s doing.
Luke Grant: Yeah, well, they’re always quick to point out that they’re going to follow the experts. And here we have an expert with some advice. And I mean, it’s dangerous on one hand, but it’s also given this Government’s behaviour to date, somewhat bizarre, surely.
David Coleman: It’s very hard to fathom how the Minister made this decision. I mean, look, this is the same Minister that’s under investigation, under the Mobile Black Spot Program, the same Minister that’s putting forward these appalling misinformation laws. And it’s a Minister whose decisions are just very hard to understand, to be frank, Luke. And again, on this issue, this would be simply implementing the the recommendation of Australia’s top expert in the field. And it’s a trial, it’s not committing the Government to a particular kind of technology. It’s basically to say let’s trial the various technologies that are being used around the world because other countries are moving in this area and we should too. And so the Commissioner is saying we’ll do the trial, work out what’s best and then prescribe a solution here. And the Government is saying, well, no, we’re actually going to leave this to some years down the track and we’re just going to rely on a process which is not at all what the eSafety Commissioner has recommended.
Luke Grant: Yeah, a couple of other issues you’ve been front and centre on. First off, Labor’s Misinformation Bill, where is that up to right now?
David Coleman: Yeah, well, we’ve been debating that in Parliament this week, Luke, and it’s just an extraordinary piece of legislation and it’s hard to understand how they put this forward. So what’s happened in the last couple of weeks, submissions on the Bill have closed. There have been many thousands of submissions and apparently it may be tens of thousands of submissions on this Bill. Now the Government still hasn’t released them, but a number of organisations have put out their submissions themselves because they’re so concerned and it includes the whole spectrum of organisations. So civil liberties organisations, the journalist’s union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the Law Council of Australia, which is the top legal body in the nation, and many other groups as well. And they’re basically all coming out and saying there are huge problems with this Bill because as you know, I mean this Bill does some extraordinary things. It basically puts the Government in the driving seat of determining when digital platforms are or are not doing enough about misinformation. But then it defines misinformation so broadly that it will capture many things said by Australians every day and will therefore lead to a reduction in free speech because the digital platforms are going to remove that content because they’re not going to want to get the big fines. And what a number of these submissions have pointed out is if you criticise the Government, that can be misinformation. But if the Government, if the Albanese Government authorises something, that can’t be misinformation. Now in a democracy, we are one of the great democracies on earth, Luke. And for a government of Australia to put out a Bill which says it cannot be responsible for misinformation, but critics of it can be responsible for misinformation, that’s just unconscionable. But that’s what this Government has done. So we are going to fight this every step of the way. This is a battle that will go on over a number of months. I think since we last spoke, Luke, I’ve set up a website called binthebill.au. And on that website we’ve got updates on the Bill. We’re keeping everyone up to date with the status of this issue. Many thousands of people have signed up to that website already. And so if people are interested in this topic, I recommend checking out binthebill.au. But we will certainly be very vigorously pursuing this issue and doing everything we can to stop this legislation.
Luke Grant: Good on you. As you say it’s absolutely appalling to think that something that comes from Government is given the tick as information and anyone critical of it online can be found to be providing misinformation. It’s not the People’s Republic of China, with due respect to them. It’s appalling.
David Coleman: It is just extraordinary. And the thing is, the Government can’t sort of backslide away from this and say it’s not theirs. I mean, this is their legislation. When you’re a Minister in a government, you don’t put out a Bill because you think it’s a really bad idea. You put out a Bill because you think it’s a really good idea. And they put this out, so they own it. And it is a really concerning insight into the way the Government thinks about political debate in this nation. And a lot of people are very concerned and the depth of response in terms of the sheer volume of submissions and the weight of criticism really reflects how bad this Bill is. The Law Council of Australia, in its submission, it picks up on a point that the Bill doesn’t only apply to the digital platforms, it applies to every Australian, because if ACMA, the regulator decides that a person has information about misinformation or alleged misinformation, ACMA can require that person to appear at a time and place of the government regulators choosing. And if the person doesn’t appear to answer questions about allegations of misinformation, they can be fined more than $8,000 per day.
Luke Grant: Wow, thats unbelieveable.
David Coleman: It is in the Bill and how on earth this happens, it’s really a question for the Albanese Government. It’s quite extraordinary.
Luke Grant: It is. That website again, it is binthebill.au, there’s a petition there to sign if you feel inclined to do so, I’d encourage you to do so. This is so dangerous, this thing. David, always good to talk to you. Your message is always clear and easy to understand. That’s of course, one of the battles in dealing with complicated matters, the like of which we spoke today. I wish you well. Have a good one and we’ll talk again soon.
David Coleman: Thanks Luke. Thanks very much.