MICHELLE ROWLAND MP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS
MEMBER FOR GREENWAY
LAUNCH OF THE PARLIAMENTARY FRIENDS OF MAKING SOCIAL MEDIA SAFE
The formation of this Parliamentary Friends group comes at a watershed moment in the history of internet governance.
2021 has borne witness to the deplatforming of Donald Trump and, in Australia, some of the first payments for news media content by Google while Facebook has restricted the sharing of news content and a range of other pages and it’s only February!
Last year – like many parents and carers – I received an urgent message from my children’s school warning of a particular suicide video circulating on social media. An ABC Four Corners investigation brought to light concerning reports of sexual assault in Australia facilitated by dating apps like Tinder.
Further afield, public interest reporting around consent and content on Pornhub forced that platform to clean up its act around what videos are uploaded – seemingly overnight, with the flick of a switch.
In 2019, Australia responded to the Christchurch terrorist atrocity with law that put some of the practical challenges of internet governance back onto the platforms. For too long, Governments and regulators around the world had seen all manner of crimes live-streamed, yet failed to act. It is tragic that it took an atrocity of such scale to prompt a decisive response.
Prior to this, Australia introduced legislation to counter the non-consensual sharing of intimate images - a matter in which Labor is proud to have led calls for criminalisation - as well as cyberbullying and the creation of the Office of the eSafety Commissioner.
Of course, Australia had a cybersafety regulator before this, in the form of the Australian Consumer and Media Authority (ACMA), which was also world class in producing content and tools to foster online safety.
Australia has long recognised the internet as a governed space – and, indeed, has regulated it.
25 years ago, the Parliamentary Library published a research paper entitled, 'Can the internet be regulated?'
Among other things, that paper noted that legislation being considered by the Australian States and Territories provided an incentive for establishing a code of conduct and the then Australian Broadcasting Authority had announced an inquiry into the regulation of content online services, proposing the exploration of various strategies, including codes of practice, complaints procedures and education programs, in addition to devices for blocking or filtering certain material and offence provisions.
Following that, early legislative reforms directed at regulation of the internet in Australia included amendments in 1999 to the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, which established a regulatory regime for internet service providers and online content.
Other early legislative measures included the Cybercrime Act 2001 and the Spam Act 2003.
Alongside these developments at the turn of the millennium, the High Court of Australia delivered its landmark case in Dow Jones v Gutnick, which had repercussions far beyond defamation litigation, for which it was concerned.
In recent years, the Government has stated that ‘it’s important to recognise that the internet is not the "wild west", where the rule of law and standards of decency shouldn’t apply'.
However, the question has long been not whether to regulate the internet but how best to regulate the internet.
How best to regulate an environment that is less “Wild West”, and more corporate central: where incentives are skewed to commercial interests as much as any transformative mission, as the case may be.
That’s where this Parliamentary Friends Group comes in.
Some people may be here because they feel there isn’t enough control of content by or on social media (for example in relation to misinformation); whereas others may feel there is too much control (for example, in relation to deplatforming).
Some may think we need mandatory rules, while others may prefer voluntary rules or even think that law is futile here.
The reality is somewhere in between, as Internet Law academic Kim Weatherall said; “the future is neither one of perfect control, nor of powerlessness”.
What is important is that we become less reactive, and more responsive.
It is essential that elected representatives set norms through dialogue, debate and a bipartisan commitment to keeping Australians safe online.
TUESDAY, 23 FEBRUARY 2021