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Transcript: RN Breakfast Interview with Patricia Karvelas

RN Breakfast

Wednesday 6 October 2021, AEDT 8.05AM


Patricia Karvelas: Governments around the world have been attempting to regulate big tech, but the companies remain highly resistant. Paul Fletcher is the Federal Communications Minister. He’s also written an essay called Governing in the Internet Age – kind of perfect timing in many ways. Welcome to RN Breakfast.

Paul Fletcher: Good to be with you, Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, we heard overnight the explosive revelations from the whistleblower. She told a US Senate committee that Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy. Your essay is titled Governing in the Internet Age. Who’s governing these tech giants?

Paul Fletcher: Well, I guess I argue in this mini-book produced as part of the Monash University Press ‘In The National Interest’ series, I argue that governments initially got off to a pretty slow start in regulating the internet when it took off with such enormous speed. It roared out of the labs in the 90s, and by the 2000s it was, you know, the largest mass market consumer phenomenon in the world. There’s several billion people connected now with smart phones have a big part to play in that.

Now that has raised a lot of challenges for government. And I argue that we’re now catching up. There’s certainly more to do. But if you compare the US to Australia, I mean, this congressional hearing that’s going on at the moment into the regulation of social media, in some ways we’ve been ahead of the US on this. We came to government in 2013 promising to establish what we then called a children’s eSafety commissioner. We established that in 2015. We’ve gradually expanded its powers, and just this year we’ve passed the Online Safety Act, which gives our eSafety Commissioner significant additional powers. For example, we’ll for the first time have a scheme to deal with the serious cyber bullying of adults. We’ve already got one to deal with cyber bullying of children. That will take effect from January next year.

So, my point is that it has certainly taken governments around the world time to understand how the internet, as I argue in the book, as enormously changed the task of governing. But we are starting to see responses, and in many ways, I think online safety is one area where Australia stands up pretty well compared to other countries. Another, of course, is the News Media Bargaining Code, which we legislated earlier this year.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. Now, this whistleblower, Frances Haugen, has made some really disturbing allegations. What’s your reaction specifically to those allegations?

Paul Fletcher: Well, I’ve obviously been listening to what she’s said. I don’t want to go through and sort of comment on the specific details. But what I will say is that at every stage in Australia where we have sought to tighten up the regulation of the global digital platforms, be it in relation to online safety or be it in relation to the major economic and competition policy issues that the internet giants present, which we tackled in the News Media Bargaining Code, every time we’ve sought to do this there’s been strong resistance from these global digital giants. They don’t like the idea of being subject to regulation.

And what I would say, PK, is even five years ago as a politician when you were proposing these kinds of regulatory frameworks the internet giants would come back and say, “Oh, well, Australia be a global tech backwater if you introduce this kind of legislation.” And even five years ago those kind of arguments were given a fair bit of credence. They’re not anymore. There’s been a significant change, I think, in community expectations and community understanding of these issues. And I have to say the nature of what’s being said by this whistleblower – without commenting on the specific details – but the nature of it I think does not come as an enormous surprise.

Patricia Karvelas: No, but it’s chilling stuff.

Paul Fletcher: Well, what it goes to is that we are all very extensive users of these global digital platforms. You know, the ACCC’s digital platforms inquiry found that over 17 million Australians use Facebook every month; over 19 million use Google. And as Prime Minister Morrison and Treasurer Frydenberg and I said earlier this year when we were legislating the news media bargaining code, these are companies that provide services that consumers value. We’re not saying we don’t want you in Australia – very far from it. But we’re saying that if you do business in Australia you need to comply with our rules.

And there are genuine issues of user safety, and that’s where our eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant has been really at the forefront of world consideration of these issues. The World Economic Forum last week put out a report recommending that the eSafety Commissioner was a model that other countries could follow. And Julie’s been arguing for what she calls safety by design. She makes the point that the global automotive giants build in air bags and seat belts and all kinds of features that are designed into their products, and she argues that we should expect the same of the global internet giants because their products are such a central part of our lives.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, there was a mass outage of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp yesterday. It exposed how vulnerable we are when the systems go down and people rely on WhatsApp even for organising themselves in the workplace, right? Is there reality that we have too much dependence on these internet giants and there’s no recourse when the lights go off?

Paul Fletcher: The internet is a series of layers and at the bottom layer you’ve got the physical networks over which it all operates – you know, the poles, the ducts, the fibre, the towers. Then you’ve got a series of layers of software, and you’ve got particular applications up the top. This has become central to modern society. And again, it goes to the question, as I discuss in the book Governing in the Internet Age of the many ways in which governments need to think about the internet – cyber security, cyber-crime, the role of connected computers in the way that power systems and water systems and traffic lights all operate. So, yes, there are a set of important issues there.

One of the issues for a country like Australia where even today only a bit over 30 per cent of our land mass has terrestrial mobile coverage, one of the issues is how do we build out the physical network infrastructure over which all of these services operate. Of course, we’ve committed $49 billion of taxpayers’ money to the National Broadband Network, and then the services that run over it, delivered by a whole range of different companies. And, of course, one of the other points I make in the book is we shouldn’t overlook the enormous social and economic benefits the internet’s delivered, and the fact that consumers do use these services so widely suggest they deliver great value. But at the same time, we have to be alive to issues of community safety and economic policy issues like competition issues when you’ve got global giants dominating markets in a way that is almost without precedent.

Patricia Karvelas: You talk about a meeting you had in Silicon Valley and with your former colleague and then Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull asked a senior tech executive his views on cyber bullying, and his response was, “We are doing an awesome job.” Do you think this attitude of big tech has changed since you had that meeting?

Paul Fletcher: My experience in visiting these big companies in Silicon Valley, which I’ve done on a couple of occasions, is that many of them have been – it’s not that long since they were started in a garage – you know, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years. And they are maturing, but they’ve got more work to do. And, you know, we saw it again on the news media bargaining code in February this year, Facebook unilaterally shut down the Facebook pages of Australian news media organisations and many other organisations like fire and police and ambulance got caught up in that. That was just one indicator of the fact that they’re still coming to terms, I believe, with the scale of social influence that they have. And that is why it is important that they’re subject to the rule of law.

You know, the Australian government, Prime Minister Morrison, has been very strong on this in international forums. The rule of law needs to apply when citizens interact in the digital town square as much as in the physical town square. You know, we had the appalling Christchurch Mosque attack two or three years ago where over 50 people were murdered and that was live streamed on Facebook. Now, that is something you could not imagine happening on traditional media. So, there are plenty of examples of where these companies have worked to do in meeting community expectations. And certainly, the Australian government and many other governments around the world are going down this path and framing very clearly through legislation, including our new Online Safety Act, what we expect of these companies because with the extraordinary economic power they’ve got great responsibility comes with that as well.

Patricia Karvelas: You’re very keen to talk about the need to govern and monitor the internet, but what about a federal anti-corruption body? In New South Wales there’s a body that has the power to investigate potential wrongdoing, unlike at the federal level where there’s no oversight. Do you think it’s urgent that this kind of body is introduced federally?

Paul Fletcher: Well, we are committed to a commonwealth integrity commission. We’re committed to introducing the legislation before the end of the year. We’ve consulted on that very extensively. A lot of submissions received – over 300 submissions. And the model that we’re proposing for a commonwealth interest integrity commission, it will have the same power to investigate criminal corruption in the public sector as a royal commission. So, we are proposing a model that we’ve thought through very carefully. By the same token, as the Prime Minister made clear yesterday, we don’t intend to replicate some of the features of, for example, ICAC in New South Wales where the presumption of innocence is reversed.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay, but according to the Centre for Public Integrity, your body that you’re talking about would be the weakest watchdog in the country. How can that be acceptable?

Paul Fletcher: Well –

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, don’t you think that’s something that needs to be addressed, if such an important body is saying it’s going to be the weakest watchdog? Don’t you need to address that concern?

Paul Fletcher: Patricia, it’s not greatly surprising that the so-called Centre for Public Integrity, which is largely comprised of lawyers and former lawyers, you know, is very keen on another lawyer’s picnic with, you know, QCs at thousands of dollars a day employed in large numbers. What we’re looking at is an appropriate public policy outcome to deal with the risk of criminal corruption in the commonwealth system. And we’ve got a very detailed model. We’ve consult on it very extensively. There’s almost $150 million of funding committed to it. And we are on the record as planning to introduce the legislation before the end of the year to deliver a commonwealth integrity commission.

Patricia Karvelas: Paul Fletcher, thanks for joining us.

Paul Fletcher: Thanks very much.

Patricia Karvelas: Federal Communications Minister and the author of Governing in the Internet Age, Paul Fletcher joining us there.