Shadow Minister for Communications, Transcript – ABC News Afternoon Briefing with Greg Jennett

Subjects: eSafety Commissioner contradicts Government on Age Verification Trial, Local Content Laws




Greg Jennett: David Coleman, welcome back to Afternoon Briefing.

David Coleman: Hi Greg.

Greg Jennett: You’ve been keeping an eye on Senate estimates hearings and some testimony given there, particularly when it comes to age verification of online porn. We’ve known for some time that Communications Minister, Michelle Rowland, has been reluctant to adopt mandatory age verification. She said as much in a letter to the eSafety Commissioner last year that was obtained under FOI. So what do you say we discovered from Senate estimates this week?

David Coleman: Well, the eSafety Commissioner was quite blunt in Senate estimates and made very clear that her recommendation was, we should do this, we should mandate a trial of this technology. The technology is ready. It’s advanced even further since March of last year when she recommended it, and that questions about why the Government’s not doing it shouldn’t be directed to her, because she’s not the person saying don’t do it, it’s the Government. And this is a massive issue, Greg, because the issue of the online safety of kids is one of the defining issues of our era. Every parent worries about this, and age verification is crucial, because what that means is you get to a position where you can say to a platform, you must ensure that kids are not seeing this dangerous content as opposed to what they say now, which is, ‘sorry, we didn’t know they were a kid.’ It’s just not good enough and the Government’s response on this is shocking.

Greg Jennett: All right. So it’s preferred approach is to throw it back on industry, make it clean up its act, as it were, via industry codes. What’s wrong with that?

David Coleman: A lot is wrong with that, Greg, because this is the industry that has done basically nothing on this issue. And the industry, so we’re talking about largely the pornography industry here. So, the concept that we are going to leave to the pornography industry, the regulation of whether or not kids are accessing pornography, it is just patently absurd on its face. And I think one of the very few people in Australia who thinks that’s a good idea is Michelle Rowland. We’ve got this letter from more than 50 of Australia’s top experts on child safety, including the former Royal Commissioner into child sexual abuse, who have condemned the Minister, have said that the Minister has buckled to industry pressure and that this is just wrong. And Michelle Rowland, she needs to reverse position. We will welcome that. We will fully support that if she does so. But sometimes in life, Greg, one has to say I got it wrong, I stuffed up. The Minister has got this completely wrong. She needs to reverse course and, if she does that, people will welcome it.

Greg Jennett: All right, well we’ll take that up with her if we get the opportunity. What sort of age verification should be trialled, though? As I understand it, in some US states it’s very light touch indeed. It’s yes or no to a simple question, are you over the age of whatever the relevant age is?

David Coleman: Well not that. Not that. And in fact, the eSafety Commissioner talked about this on Tuesday night. Basically, how this system would work as recommended by the eSafety Commissioner, is there would be trusted providers who establish someone’s age, and that could be through documents or facial recognition and so on. And then once that’s done, that person has effectively what’s called a token, which says this person’s over 18. And so then they go to another website, the token is submitted to the website. The website doesn’t find out the name or personal details. They just effectively see the tick, yes, this person is 18. And this system is being adopted all around the world. The eSafety Commissioner recommended it a year ago and in that year, things have got even better. And don’t forget, Greg, the eSafety Commissioner spent two years researching this issue. She’s the pre-eminent expert on this topic in this country and the Minister said, no, I’m not going to do that and that’s outrageous.

Greg Jennett: And so these privacy risks that always attend systems like this, you’re saying with the improvement in these technologies, they’re being adequately addressed.

David Coleman: Yes, yes. The technology has gone forward immensely. And again, the eSafety Commissioner addressed that on Tuesday night. She described these technologies as often privacy enhancing. And think about what we’re talking about here. What is this subject matter? The subject matter is the safety of children online from pornography and other material, which is dangerous for them, bad for their mental health, bad for their interactions with other people. This is a really serious issue and if you ask the average Australian parent, are you worried about what your kids are seeing online? Every single one of them, to be frank, will say yes.

Greg Jennett: I’m sure that’s the case.

David Coleman: And this age verification technology is the key to making big inroads on this issue. And last year I actually put a Bill to Parliament to implement the eSafety Commissioner’s recommendation in full. The Government wouldn’t do it, so we did. Now, all the Government members walked in and voted against that. Interestingly, all the independents supported us because they knew it was the right thing to do.

Greg Jennett: I think we might have discussed that at the time, if I remember correctly. Also, in your area of communication, shadow communications, David, local content laws. We’re well aware that the Government is considering extending that from traditional broadcasters to streaming service providers. What’s the Coalition’s, we’re waiting on the legislation, I should add, but what’s the Coalition’s in-principle approach to that proposition?

David Coleman: Yeah, we support absolutely, supporting local content and we put a policy before the last election around local content and requiring minimum standards around that. But basically, what’s the Government done here? Well, nothing. I mean, this has fallen into the sort of abyss that was 2023. The Government was so preoccupied with The Voice. Tony Burke went off to the Woodford Folk Festival, no doubt before an adoring crowd late in 2022, said we’re going to pass these laws about local content. We’re now, what, 14-15 months later, nothing’s happened. And the Government’s still saying that these laws will apply from the 1st of July. So we’re now four months away from that. The laws don’t exist. And while Tony Burke has primary carriage of this, so does Michelle Rowland and are they on the same page on this? I mean, if this was a harmonious proposal, it probably would have come to the Parliament by now. So obviously as the Opposition, we can’t respond to a policy that doesn’t exist, we’ll assess whatever they put forward. But it’s amateur hour on this topic.

Greg Jennett: We will be getting you back to run a ruler over that when it emerges. And leave that one with us when it comes to asking questions of Tony Burke and Michelle Rowland. David Coleman, good to catch up again.

David Coleman: Thanks, Greg.