Federal Member For Banks
Shadow Minister for Communications

Shadow Minister for Communications, Transcript – ABC NewsRadio with Tom Oriti

Subjects: Government’s backflip on age verification, Bean Review on Optus Outage, Online safety



Tom Oriti: The Federal Government has promised to deliver a range of new measures to tackle factors that increase violence against women. And one of the initiatives, in case you missed it, is a $6.5 million funding boost for the eSafety Commissioner to pilot age verification to protect children from accessing pornography. David Coleman is the Shadow Minister for Communications. He joins us on the line. David Coleman, thanks for your time. You’ve been calling for this for a while, I should note. So are you satisfied the Government’s now going ahead with this age verification pilot?

David Coleman: Well, it should have happened a year ago, but it’s good that it is happening. It should also extend to social media, as the Commissioner outlined in her initial recommendation. And we actually brought legislation to do this exact thing to Parliament in November, and the Government voted against it. So, it shouldn’t have taken so long, but it’s good that it’s happening. This is a totemic issue in our society. The fact that children are growing up and seeing this violent imagery, which is normalising attitudes that lead to violence against women is completely unacceptable. And more broadly, we’re seeing mental health issues in this generation of children which are far worse than previous generations and we’ve got to act. The stakes are high here. The trial is welcome. But there’s a lot more to do.

Tom Oriti: It seems, it is seen globally as somewhat of a near impossible task though, right? I mean from your understanding, what methods will actually be trialed to verify children’s ages? Do you support the way it is going to be implemented or trialed now it’s happening? I just wonder whether it would be very easy for kids who are very, very technologically advanced? Some of them would be able to circumvent it pretty easily.

David Coleman: Well Tom, I think obviously people will try and circumvent any system that’s imposed online, just as people try to circumvent systems in the physical world. But that’s not a reason to say, oh, well, we’re just going to do nothing about it. And to be frank, a lot of the people who push that argument are people associated with the digital platforms who don’t want anything to happen. Now in the UK last year, they passed their Online Safety Act, which requires pretty much exactly what the Government is trialing here in terms of the age assurance for online pornography. And in December, so five months ago, Ofcom, the regulator there, put out guidance on what will satisfy it to comply with age assurance. And there’s actually 5 or 6 different methods outlined there. One of them is what they call video selfies which Facebook has actually been doing for two years in its Facebook Dating product in the US because of concerns about people effectively not being who they claim to be or being of an appropriate age to be on a Facebook dating product. And the Commissioner said that the technology was ready to move forward on when she put in her report in March last year. And then in February this year she said since then it’s got even better. And as I said, the stakes are high.

Tom Oriti: So it’s not just about, though, it’s not just about trusting a kid to put in the date of birth or something like that? It’s more advanced than that.

David Coleman: Well, and that’s the entire problem with the current system. I mean it’s absurd. You have a social media site that says well you have to be over 13 and firstly, it shouldn’t be 13 in the first place. But leaving that to one side, the child could be 10 and say they are 25.

Tom Oriti: Trust me, I was born in the 80s or something.

David Coleman: Well, yeah and broadly the platforms say okay. And the US Surgeon General put out a report last year that referred to research showing that 40% of 8- to 12-year-olds in the US, access social media. So it’s a complete fiction that the current system is working. We have got to get moving.

Tom Oriti: Now part of this as well, there are new laws that are going to be considered to ban deepfake pornography. That’s seen as very much part of the problem as this discussion continues. What’s your view and how effective something like that would be?

David Coleman: I think it’s a sensible move to do that. The UK did something similar a month ago. When you have a situation when real people are being, effectively having their identity appropriated, and sexualised images or pornographic images are being created, that’s obviously completely unacceptable. That should be an offence. And it’s appropriate that the Government is doing that. And again, the answer to complexity of implementation is not to say let’s do nothing. The answer is to move forward on it. And there will be undoubtedly scenarios where people, for whatever perverse motivation are creating those sorts of deepfake images, who will be able to be identified and they should be pursued because it’s obviously completely unacceptable.

Tom Oriti: David Coleman, I have just got a couple of other issues I’d like to discuss with you while I’ve got you there. Given your Shadow Portfolio, Optus this week, the Government accepted 18 recommendations from the review into that outage that a lot of us might remember last year in November. So things like creating a Body to take charge of the 000 system, forcing telcos to share real time information during outages. Are you happy with the outcomes of that review?

David Coleman: Yeah, I thought the review was a sensible process, sensible recommendations. One of the recommendations relates to improving Government communication in these situations. And that’s absolutely necessary. Your ABC colleagues under FOI discovered that Minister Rowland had been told on the day that some 000 calls were not getting through. She was told that by Telstra and her own department, but then an hour later told the Australian people that the 000 system was working. And so improving government communications and making sure it’s accurate, which is one of the recommendations of this review, is really important. And there are other sensible reviews as well. The Senate is still doing an inquiry into this matter and that has a little way to run. And I’m sure we’ll continue to explore this issue about Minister Rowland’s conduct on the day.

Tom Oriti: Look I mean, sure, but I think in fairness here there’s a lot of talk about communications, as you said, from the different telcos and the fact that Optus itself was seemingly not able to communicate at all, considering it was on the Optus network. So as you said, the discussion will continue. But the Minister is accepting those recommendations now. I’d love to chat with you about that further, but I’m just keen to ask you about the stoush, between the Government and X as well, or Twitter. We’re waiting to see how that plays out in the next court hearing next week. Do you feel as though there’s a lot of talk around about that footage of the church stabbing and whether it is really that graphic to justify this sort of level of action. Do you feel it’s really something that the eSafety Commissioner needs to continue to pursue?

David Coleman: Yes, I think it’s appropriate. The eSafety Commissioner’s acting under provisions of the Online Safety Act that the Coalition put in place and the specific provisions relate to things like terrorist related material, extreme and violent material, and so on. And the Commissioner is exercising her powers under the act. So yes, I do think it’s appropriate.

Tom Oriti: Are you remotely confident though? I’m just interested to gauge your view as to whether a billionaire overseas is going to care or listen at all to what the Federal Court of Australia has to say about this platform. I mean, some people might argue it’s almost a pointless exercise pursuing a global takedown order.

David Coleman: Well I think, to say that a company may disregard a Federal Court order, you can’t do that. If you want to operate in Australia, you must abide with the laws of Australia. And the Online Safety Act sets out clear laws. Obviously people have a right to contest matters in court, and that’s what’s happening in this case. But you don’t get to pick and choose which laws of Australia you will comply with. And, that’s how it is in any field of law, just as it is in this field of law. And so yes, I think that sort of argument that, oh well, someone might just ignore the law, I don’t think it’s something we should be kind of countenancing as a country, because our laws are our laws. And if you want to operate within Australia, you need to comply with the law and you have the right to take things to court if you disagree with the particular application.

Tom Oriti: There is disagreement though, as I flagged a moment ago over whether that video is actually graphic enough to be worth this legal battle. Do you think that this is based on that, is this one that we should just let go? Notwithstanding there might be future action in the future for different other images. But is it worth all the furore now?

David Coleman: Now look I think, as I said, the Commissioner is acting within her power and I think it’s entirely reasonable for her to be taking the action she is in relation to Australians viewing that content. It’s called class one material. And there’s a clear definition of class one material in the Act. And presumably that’s one of the issues that the court will look into. But the Commissioner is acting under the powers that the Coalition Government put in place. And we support her in doing her job.

Tom Oriti: David Coleman, thanks for joining us. Appreciate your time.

David Coleman: Thanks, Tom.

Tom Oriti: David Coleman is the Shadow Minister for Communications.