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Interview 2GB Money News

ROSS GREENWOOD:
One of the things after the Christchurch terror attack that is very clear to many people right around the world, but certainly here in Australia, is at some stage there is an inequity that has been built into our media laws. Now, this has come as a result of the increasing dominance that's coming from Facebook, Google, Twitter and others. In other words, platforms on which material is carried, advertising is carried. They have effectively taken over from the old newspaper barons. They are so powerful in terms of not only their message but influence around the world. Then you sit there and go to, say for example, the Christchurch attack itself, carried out on a live-streaming basis. Now, to me, an ordinary person, that should never happen. It should be stopped immediately. Then you go to the next stage and say: well, alright. Who is responsible? Now, let's say, for example, if somebody on this network defamed somebody else while talking to me, well, it's the network which has got the carriage that ultimately will bear some responsibility for allowing that defamation to go out. So in this particular case, if terrible things are broadcast, who should be responsible?

The point is, right now, even a couple of weeks later, the organisations that were responsible for its carriage have done nothing, and that seriously to me is of concern. Facebook has done nothing. Sure they talked, said it's terrible, but done nothing. You've got Twitter, oh it's terrible, done nothing. So, who should do something? In a speech to the Sydney Institute in October last year, our own Communications Minister, Mitch Fifield, said that effectively there's a clear role for the government and industry to work together to ensure the interests of our community are protected. Sure. But he also said this doesn't mean regulate first. The government values the individual and their exercise of free choice. This is a starting position. Our focus is on responsibility. Then it goes on to who is responsible.
But let's get the Communications Minister Mitch Fifield to explain this. Many thanks for your time, Minister.

MITCH FIFIELD:
Good to be with you, Ross.

ROSS GREENWOOD:
Alright. I go to here – my point about Facebook, Twitter, Google, for example, having done nothing after the Christchurch attack. Is that fair or unfair?

MITCH FIFIELD:
Look, it's fundamentally fair, Ross. They were too slow to remove the material once it was drawn to their attention. And the clear view of myself and the Prime Minister, the Attorney-General, and the Home Affairs Minister is that that wasn't good enough. Which is why we had representatives of all of the platforms and the internet service providers in to meet us yesterday to make that crystal clear. To also say to them that the rules and the laws and the norms that apply in the physical world should also apply in the online world. That there is an opportunity for them to lift their game. But if they don't do that, we will not hesitate to legislate.

ROSS GREENWOOD:
Okay. I would have thought here it would be very easy to legislate until they can prove to you and to me and to our audience that there is not likely to be a repeat of this because let's be honest, if somebody took it upon themselves to do exactly the same thing tomorrow, using exactly the same mechanism, it would go out. Now, it might be brought down more quickly but it would certainly go out live. There's no doubt. Why not? Because it would be literally the click of a few fingers on a keypad to stop all live streaming on all social media sites from tomorrow. And until you can prove to us that you have put in place the sort of measures to ensure that this can never happen – because it's not the first time it's happened – I would suggest that they should all be stopped and if they can't- if they say: oh, we're global, we can't just do it. Of course, they could do it just in Australia if that was what our government chose for them to do. It would be a strong message to them, it would be a strong message to the community, that these types of things are thoroughly unacceptable.

MITCH FIFIELD:
Well, it's fair to say that we were underwhelmed by the response of the platforms, particularly Facebook, in our meeting yesterday. Which is why we've indicated that what we're looking at is creating an offence that if a platform, has it drawn to their attention that there is this sort of material – the live streaming of mass murder, terrorism, kidnap or rape – that if that's drawn to their attention and they don't remove it as soon as possible, then that would be an offence. We already have on the books an offence of that type when it comes to child pornographic and child abuse material. So there's no reason why we shouldn't have the same legislative provisions when it comes to these other sorts of heinous activities.

ROSS GREENWOOD:
You said there that you were underwhelmed especially by the response of Facebook. Explain to me what that response was and why you were so underwhelmed?

MITCH FIFIELD:
It was underwhelming, firstly, because when we pointed out that it took a full 69 minutes from when the livestream commenced to when they started to take that material down and went through minute by minute what happened, or what didn't happen, more particularly, they were unable to give an account. So, you'd think that if you were fronting up to the Prime Minister, the Communications Minister, the Attorney-General, and the Home Affairs Minister, you might be in a position to give a full account of those matters. So that was the first point. Secondly, we know that they have a tremendous capacity to apply analytics, to apply algorithms, to apply artificial intelligence, to throw up a flag, when this sort of material is happening. And we weren't satisfied that they were prepared to adequately deploy that. But what was more concerning is that at about the 29-minute point after the live streaming commenced, a member of the public drew this to the attention of the organisation and it really wasn't until much later that something was done.

ROSS GREENWOOD:
But here's the thing – last year when they put their revenue numbers out, Facebook in Australia reported revenues of $476 million. Now, despite all their licencing where they pushed a lot of that back offshore - we understand how that works - this is a massive organisation, $476 million in one year in revenues. Google even bigger, $3 billion in gross revenues. I mean, net revenues were lower, about $1 billion dollars on which they ultimately are taxed on. But I mean, these are not small organisations even here in Australia and this is why surely Government has that role and responsibility to try and drag them into line but it seems it's more difficult to do with these global companies as compared with companies who are home-bred here in Australia. They're easy to seemingly whack and legislate and hit with a regulation.

MITCH FIFIELD:
We've legislated before. We had the scourge of the online bullying of children. We've legislated a regime that requires these platforms to take down that material when the eSafety Commissioner draws it to their attention and that if they don't, there are significant fines. When it comes to the non-consensual sharing of intimate images. We've legislated a similar regime. So, we've demonstrated that we have the capacity to legislate. We have the will to legislate. And in this area again if they don't come up to the mark very quickly, then we won't hesitate to legislate. And to date, we've been underwhelmed by their response and we've not been dissuaded from the idea that there might be the need for legislation.

ROSS GREENWOOD:
But Mitch, isn't one of the issues here- as I sit here thinking about this, it's not actually the ability to bring that material down quickly that's at issue, it's the fact that it should never have been allowed to be put up there in the very first place that should be the key issue. The reason for that is- let's say for example, this could happen on a very individual basis. A person decides to self-harm and simply show another person who happens to be live streaming that person at the time. I mean, this is a very real thing that can happen and has happened, particularly I've seen at least 10 examples out of the UK. I mean, so, these are the problems of a modern society and of this modern technology when it's not regulated, that the harm can be done. The harm can be done to children. The harm can be done to families. And of course, images that can never ever be forgotten. Surely, until you discover ways in which they can be properly administrated, that you've simply got to take the whole thing down. I mean, live streaming should be stopped in my opinion, and until they can prove that there are measures to prevent such actions being available, it just should be stopped. And that should be a simple thing for Government to say: right, we are going to stop this until you can prove that there are safety measures in place.

MITCH FIFIELD:
Well, I guess, a good analogy is car manufacturers. We expect car manufacturers to produce a product that's safe. To have those features in-built. And really we should have the same expectations of these social media organisations. Gone are the days when people used platforms such as Facebook simply to share photos of their holidays or to be a mechanism for us to keep track of what our family and friends are doing. They're very different operations now. And our laws do need to evolve to recognise that.

ROSS GREENWOOD:
Yeah. Well, let's see whether underwhelming response gets an overwhelming response from our government. I do trust it does. Our Communications Minister, Mitch Fifield. Always good to have you in the program, Mitch.

MITCH FIFIELD:
Thank you indeed, Ross.

[Ends]

Media contacts:

Geraldine Mitchell | 0407 280 476 | Geraldine.Mitchell [at] communications.gov.au
Guy Creighton | 0438 815 302 | Guy.Creighton [at] communications.gov.au