Minister Rowland and Minister Rishworth Press Conference at Parliament House


SUBJECTS: Voluntary code for online dating apps, draft misinformation and disinformation legislation, response by universities to sexual harassment on campuses

MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Good morning. I’m pleased to be here today with my colleague Minister Amanda Rishworth to talk about the next steps the Albanese Government is taking to keep Australians safe online when using dating platforms.

We know that today online dating platforms are absolutely mainstream. Online dating is actually the most popular way for Australians to meet new people and to form new relationships. They’re enormously popular services with the Australian public and can be beneficial for many users. But these services have also been used to cause harm. In particular, the government is concerned about rates of sexual harassment, abusive and threatening language, unsolicited sexual images and violence facilitated by these platforms.

The Australian Institute of Criminology reported in October last year that three in four survey respondents had experienced these forms of harms. And that is why the Government convened the National Roundtable on Online Dating Safety in January this year. The Roundtable brought together the online dating industry, the States and Territories, the family, domestic and sexual violence sector to find ways to address this issue.

Since the Roundtable I’ve been working closely with the online dating industry. In March, I asked the most popular online dating platforms in Australia to provide me with detailed information about the level of harms occurring on their platforms and what they were doing to keep Australians safe. After assessing their responses, I remain concerned that while every online dating platform has some form of safety features or policies in place, their sophistication varies across the industry.

I’m also concerned that there is a lack of consistency in how online dating platforms are collecting data, responding to reports of harm, engaging with law enforcement and supporting vulnerable users. We want to see a lift in safety right across the industry.

So today I am calling on the online dating platform industry to develop a voluntary code of practice for online dating services. I have written to the most popular online dating platforms to request that the industry work together to develop this code of practice. We expect the code will cover specific areas, committing the industry to improving engagement with law enforcement, supporting at-risk users, reviewing and improving safety policies and practices, safety by design and child safety frameworks, providing greater transparency about harms, and as my colleague Minister Rishworth will outline, to have a focus on interventions in relation to perpetrators. The Roundtable made this very clear: that the onus should not be on victim survivors, but we need to have safety in place to ensure that those perpetrators are addressed upfront.

The code will be led by industry with dating platforms responsible for drafting and adopting its terms. During the co-development, industry will provide stakeholders with an opportunity to comment, including representatives from the Australian family, domestic and sexual violence sector, policing and government agencies.

I’ve asked Australia’s eSafety Commissioner to make herself available to industry so the code can be informed by her and the expertise of her office. This includes advice to industry to support the development of the code, advising me whether the draft code developed by industry is fit for purpose, and evaluating the effectiveness of the code after nine months of operation. And, again, as my colleague Minister Rishworth will outline, consultation with the Family, Domestic and Sexual Violence Commissioner will be absolutely crucial.

We want to see greater collaboration across the industry and an overall uplift in safety standards. We’ve asked for the code to be in place by the 30 June next year. I have been encouraged by the cooperation of industry to date, but industry is also on notice: if the code is not delivered or does not deliver the improvements that are being sought in terms of improving safety for Australian users, I will not hesitate to take further action, including regulatory and legislative measures.

I’ll hand over to my colleague Minister Rishworth.

AMANDA RISHWORTH, MINISTER FOR SOCIAL SERVICES: Well, thank you, Minister Rowland. And I’d first like to say thank you to Minister Rowland for her leadership because the time for this code is now. We know that the rise of different technologies can often have huge benefit. They also can lead to abuse and harassment. And this is right across a number of areas, including, of course, online dating apps. It is time that those online dating apps take their moral responsibility seriously, and I very much look forward to seeing their deep engagement in developing this voluntary code of conduct.

Of course, what we know from the engagement through our roundtables but also engagement through the work done by victim survivors is that there is a lot of opportunity that these dating apps provide to make connections, but there are, of course, the risks that come with it that facilitate technological abuse. And it is very clear that a significant number of particularly women are experiencing online harassment and abuse facilitated by dating apps.

It is time for the industry to lift its standard. But it also is time for the industry to look at the unique position it is in. Of course, with technology comes the opportunity for these dating apps to actually provide interventions, to identify bad behaviour before it becomes criminal, to actually look at how technology can help to intervene to stop someone that may be behaving badly online and to actually either to remove them from online or provide some education to them as an early intervention.

Of course, there’s also the complaints mechanisms that we heard clearly at the roundtable need to be much more focused on the victim survivors, need to really understand the experience of victim survivors. And that’s why I would certainly, and it’s the expectation of the government, that the industry does involve the Family, Domestic and Sexual Violence Commissioner along with victim survivors to ensure that their experience is clearly reflected in the response, that their experiences won’t happen again as a result of this voluntary code.

So, there is a lot for industry to do. I acknowledge, as Minister Rowland has done, the work to date, but the time for this code is now. We need to make sure that we are responding to emerging issues, and the harassment, the levels of harassment, abuse and technology facilitated abuse are at too high a level, and if we are to end violence against women and children in one generation, then we need to address this on online dating apps.

And so I look forward to working with Minister Rowland and with the dating app industry to make sure that we have an innovative and, most importantly, a code that facilitates safety, that does not put the onus all on victim survivors but, of course, through its design and through its interventions actually holds perpetrators to account and ensures that the safety of women and other vulnerable groups is held at the forefront. Thank you.

JOURNALIST: Can I just ask why you’re making the code voluntary and not enforceable for this sector, even if the sector comes up with it themselves? And also, can you run me through some of the problems between dating apps communicating with law enforcement agencies and why there’s concern there?

ROWLAND: Sure, it’s a good question about why is this voluntary rather than mandatory upfront. What we need to do is balance the innovation that is occurring in this area with the need to have some impact on the harms that are occurring. Over the last couple of months, we have been engaging closely with the industry. I think it’s fair to say that coming out of that online dating platform roundtable it was the first time in Australia that these groups had come together – victim survivor groups, advocacy groups, industry, governments – both State and Territory – and law enforcement.

It was important there to assess what is currently in the landscape. I think the important thing there was even as a result of that roundtable being held, we had the sector already lifting its standards and wanting to announce new safety features on their platforms. So, they were really incentivised to do better.

What we want to do in this sector is not stifle the innovation but balance the harms. By having a voluntary code upfront that is not a set and forget – indeed, it will be overseen and the eSafety Commissioner will have input into that design. By having this in place, by having reporting after nine months of operation, we will be able to see whether there have been those improvements.

We want to have a graduated and staged approach to how regulatory intervention is done in this space. But be in no doubt: if this does not deliver improved safety for Australian users, we will have no hesitation in taking this further.

On your other point about law enforcement agencies, I’ll defer to Minister Rishworth. But again, I think that coming out of that roundtable there were some useful ideas and observations on some of the approaches that could be taken. So, for example, there was a suggestion of having some sort of register of users. Victim survivor groups and other advocacy groups don’t have a set response on this because in some ways it does lead to a false sense of security. But there are other ways to invent that safety by design. And as Minister Rishworth said, making sure that the onus isn’t only on the victim survivors but making sure we’ve got perpetrators being answerable. That the principles that we have fit in with the national plan is extremely important as well.

RISHWORTH: Yes, certainly I think when it comes to the information that dating apps actually have, they certainly I think are in a position to identify when there’s patterns of behaviour emerging and potentially when laws have been broken. And so, I think there is an opportunity for those industries not to say, “Well, what happens on our platform isn’t really any of our business; we’re just there to facilitate it.” That seems to have been kind of the old way of thinking as, “We’re just here to facilitate matchmaking and not actually take the responsibility of playing a role.” And my message to industry, they have a role to play in identifying bad behaviour, to identify whether any of that behaviour actually is crossing legal lines and what role they have to play in that.

And, of course, intervening early, I mean, one of the huge opportunities I think we have here is for dating apps to actually find patterns of behaviour that may be occurring and before they escalate actually intervene. And so, I think there’s a huge opportunity here for innovation in this industry. But I guess the key message is that dating apps have much more of a role to play than just providing the platform for people to meet. They have a moral responsibility to ensure that those using the platform do adhere to appropriate standards. And I think there’s an opportunity here around their connection with law enforcement but also more broadly around enforcing responsible, respectful relationships as well.

JOURNALIST: Minister Rowland, dating apps aren’t new, nor are the issues that come with them. Why has it taken so long to get to this point? And if you’re not satisfied by mid next year with the voluntary code of conduct, what might legislation look like?

ROWLAND: Well, firstly, this is probably the first time that government – any government in Australia – has actually addressed this industry and these issues specifically. We know that with the rise of technology there are harms that arise as well. We know that eSafety has an important role, that it is a shared responsibility between government, various sectors and civil society as a whole. But this is the first time that we’ve actually had a coordinated approach. And I think that’s important to recognise.

By having this code in place by the middle of next year we are giving the industry time to lift its standards. And I will point out that industry has been responsive to our calls for improvements. But we want to build on that momentum as well.

Now, in terms of what legislation or regulatory intervention could look like, it would be in those key areas that we expect to be included in the code – complaints handling, responding to complaints, dealing with law enforcement, making sure that there are safety features that are embedded in these systems. We would certainly be taking advice from eSafety on that. eSafety will be playing a role in ensuring that this code is fit for purpose. We will be evaluating it after nine months.

But, again, I come back to stress the really important point here, which is that this is the first time that government has come together with the sector, with experts to make sure that we address this head on in a meaningful way.

JOURNALIST: Minister Rowland, there’s been an avalanche of submissions on the Misinformation and Disinformation Bill with experts including Anne Twomey warning it may be unworkable in its current form. Will there need be to changes? Which areas will be fine-tuned, and when are you aiming to pass that bill in the Parliament.

ROWLAND: Well, firstly, the primary responsibility of government is to keep Australians safe, not only including what we are announcing today but also in the online environment when it comes to misinformation and disinformation. This was an area that the previous Government acknowledged was in need of legislative reform and, in fact, announced their very intention to do that prior to the last election.

We know that some 70 per cent of Australians are concerned about the scale, scope and speed of spread of harmful misinformation and disinformation online. We know that there is an industry code of practice that is in place right now. It is a voluntary code. The successive reviews have found that it is necessary to codify that as well to ensure that the platforms are being held to account for their own policies that they say they are going to adhere to.

And let’s be very clear: those online digital platforms are making decisions about moderating their content every single day – every second of every minute of every day those platforms are determining what content is on their sites. What we are seeking to do is ensure that there is transparency around that, that big tech is doing what they say they are going to do. Doing nothing is not an option in this space.

We have engaged in an exposure draft to elicit views on how this should be crafted. And I’m grateful to everyone who has put forward thoughtful submissions in this area. We are looking at them very closely to ensure that we have the best balance between keeping Australians safe and any other concerns that may be arising.

We will take our time to ensure that that is done properly. But, again, I stress this is an exposure draft that is seeking to keep Australians safe, because harmful misinformation and disinformation is something that we simply can’t have a do-nothing attitude to.

JOURNALIST: Minister Rowland, so are you confirming you will make changes to the bill before it’s put to Parliament and, you know, a new draft released?

ROWLAND: I’m confirming that we are going through this process at the moment. That’s the whole purpose of an exposure draft – to elicit views on what might need to be amended but also to ensure the greatest effectiveness. I can say this: there are probably three categories of meaningful responses to this, some saying that we have got this right, others saying it doesn’t go far enough and others saying that the balance hasn’t been struck.

As a responsible, mature Government, we have been engaging with the community on this very important issue because we know that such a big priority needs to be placed on keeping Australians safe online. We’ve seen the impacts of harmful misinformation and disinformation, including with respect to rogue states and bad actors who seek to harm our national security. This is uppermost in our minds as we approach this. We’ll do this in a methodical and mature way, and we will take our time to get this right.

JOURNALIST: Minister Rishworth, can I just ask, at the end of last week we saw a report into consent laws around Australia that absolutely slammed universities and their responses. I understand this overlaps with Mr Clare’s portfolio as well, but it’s said that the time for working groups is over, there needs to be a taskforce and action needs to be urgent. Can I just get your response to what the government can do urgently to address some of these problems, especially in the university sector, and will you heed the calls for a taskforce?

RISHWORTH: Look, I am absolutely on a unity ticket with Minister Clare when I say that not enough work is being done on university campuses to address the high levels of sexual violence, sexual assault and sexual harassment. And the reports that we see regularly coming out, there is just too much of this type of behaviour going on.

I certainly agree with Minister Clare, who has set up or I think has assembled an eminent group of people that will look at the response at universities. But my call to universities is that they need to take this seriously. It is part of their core business to keep students safe on campuses. And so, I look forward to the work that’s being urgently done by Minister Clare and the group of people he’s assembled, which are very eminent people. And I expect universities to engage in a very active way to implement change on their campuses.

JOURNALIST: But with due respect, working groups and consultation can take quite a long period of time we’ve seen already through multiple sectors. What can be done urgently to address this? We’ve seen how – it’s nothing new how rife sexual assault is, especially in universities. What can the Government do immediately and what time frame would you like to see action?

RISHWORTH: Well, the responsibility sits with universities. They have, for example, from my department, been funded to develop a best practice guide. I would like to see those best practice guidelines implemented on university campuses ensuring that universities do take the best practice that was assembled and actually use that to implement interventions at universities.

The Government will continue to work with universities on this issue. It’s not an issue that can be turned around overnight; this is a serious issue that needs attention. And I have to say that Minister Clare has quickly acted to put together people with the relevant knowledge to actually address this issue. It’s been something that has been dealt with through the Universities Accord, and we will continue to be taking it very seriously. But there is now, launched, that Universities Australia put together, a good practice guide on how they might intervene at universities. And I would expect that the good practice guide would not sit on the shelf and be actually started to be implemented in universities.

JOURNALIST: So then like the dating sector threat, is big stick regulation or legislation on the table?

RISHWORTH: Well, look, Minister Clare is looking at student safety through the accord. And we’ve said we’re not waiting for the final Universities Accord to come out. We have as a government under the leadership of Minister Clare put together some eminent people to look at the response in universities. But there is already good practice, evidence-based interventions and approaches that can be taken by universities. And I would be encouraging them to take them up.

ROWLAND: Thank you.