20 April 2020



SUBJECT/S: Mandatory code of conduct for digital platforms, Government’s COVID-19 tracing app

Let’s get Labor’s reaction to this announcement from the Government on tech giants. Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland joins me. I’ve seen the media release out, Michelle, Labor supporting this and saying indeed that you’ve been pushing for this. From what we know so far, what is your reaction?

Well, it is pleasing to see Tom that the ACCC will have oversight of this and it will be brought forward. As your previous commentator noted, progress on a voluntary code seemed to be stalling and Rod Sims said that. I think it is also pleasing to see that, not only will oversight be there, but we have seen other developments in overseas jurisdictions that Australia has been watching closely, like France. They will also be watching us: regulators around the world are looking at one another and what steps are being taken to enable media organisations to get a decent return on their investment because at the core of it is this: not all content is created equal. News content has particular characteristics, including the intellectual rigour that goes into its manufacture from journalists, so this is certainly a welcome step.

So, as for how it actually plays out, do you have any views on, for example, what a fair revenue split might be? If we're guided from the ACCC for example, or whether a carriage fee would be more simple?

It might end up even being a combination of both. It might be a function of demand for certain sites, or depending on the readership of those sites. But all of these issues that will need to be worked out and the ACCC has been given until July as a deadline to develop a draft code there. So, I expect that most media organisations would have put some thinking into what essentially are the terms of trade here. Ultimately this is about getting a return, as I said on their investment, and it would need – I suspect – to be commensurate with the amount of investment that has gone into particular journalistic content.

The media is still being hit pretty hard by COVID-19. You've got this strange situation where more people are tuning in or clicking online, whatever it might be, consuming media more than ever but advertisers just don't have the dollars at the moment to spend on it. Where does Labor see the position of government helping media survive or otherwise? Is it seen as essential and does there need to be a sort of health check of media as this crisis unfolds?

It is absolutely essential, Tom, and no more so than during crises such as this where we have the susceptibility for fake news on a variety of channels. We want local trusted content and this is an important point for the Fourth Estate, especially when Parliament is not sitting regularly, to be able to hold governments to account and as an essential pillar of our democracy,

We certainly didn't arrive at this point overnight unfortunately. Australian media was in trouble particularly in some regional areas well before the onset of the pandemic, but we are where we are and I do think that there is broad recognition across Australia that Australians value Australian news, Australian stories, voices they can trust and it is incumbent on governments to ensure that that continues.

And just finally on to the tracing app. It's generating a bit of discussion today. Labor is supportive of this, but Chris Bowen has said that he does want to see some of the details. What are the red flags here for Labor?

ROWLAND: I think they're not only red flags for Labor, and I should preface it by saying that Labor supports any sensible measures that need to be taken to keep Australian safe. Australians have been asked to do a lot over the last few months and they've responded so well and that's one of the reasons why we have been seeing the rates that we have. But Australians are asking “what are the privacy implications of this? What does it actually mean? Can you explain who is going to obtain access to this data?”

And ultimately this is a question of trust. It always has been thus and whilst technology is so useful in so many of these situations, including having the potential to have, for example, geographically-based responses rather than blanket responses. We need to ensure that there is a sufficient take-up rate, somewhere around 40%. We've seen in Singapore where this app has been deployed that it’s around 25%. So, Australians will rightly ask “what is going to be done with my data? Who will it be shared with? Will it be de-identified?” and these are all sensible questions and…

Yeah, so far what the Government is stressing on this is that the data will go to the Health Department, that it's not going to be shared, that it's going to be encrypted data that will be deleted either 14 or 21 days after it's been collected for example. They're going down the Bluetooth path rather than GPS tracking. I mean, if Labor does support this, shouldn't you be emphasising that you support these elements and you just want to see the final detail, but you're leaning towards yes rather than asking a lot of open-ended questions?

Well, I think it's fair to say these are questions the Australian people are asking and we have said that we are very open to this as a potential tool that can assist. We are very open to that, but we need to see the detail. We need have these questions answered, as it’s not just Labor that's asking the questions, Tom, it’s the Government’s own MPs. They're not novel questions, they are in fact quite threshold ones. But Chris Bowen has been very forthright in saying we want to do everything we can to be able to support sensible measures being taken.

On the Government’s own MPs though, I mean, Barnaby Joyce this morning was saying that he hasn’t had a briefing and the Minister confirmed this. When you say, “well, they’re the ones asking the questions”, are they being somewhat reckless? Would you want to be seen as on the same page as them?

Well, if you're asking whether or not these are sensible questions to ask, I can only tell you from my perspective as someone who follows this very closely: the success of this will depend upon the take up, Tom. You can rush out the best app in the world but unless you have that critical mass of take up, it will not fulfil its role. So, you are going to be asking Australians to opt into a system which may not have the results that are required. The ball is in the Government’s court here to get it right and explain to the Australian people what it is. There is already a level of distrust with technology, but also with the Government’s handling of it. You only have to look at my myGov and go back a couple of years to the census debacle, but Australians need to have trust in this and that is what Labor is saying…

Just on that because you’re mentioning a few different issues and of course they’ve had them. Would you give the government the benefit of the doubt and what they're trying to do here? Is that your message at least for Australians?

It is, because these technologies have the potential to have very substantial and beneficial results for the situation we're in and we want these measures to succeed and the Government needs to explain what it's going to do in this regard.

Michelle Rowland, appreciate your time today. Thank you.