Recent revelations by a Facebook whistleblower that the social media giant puts “astronomical profits before people” are a reminder of the need to regulate Big Tech, according to Communications Minister Paul Fletcher
Addressing the National Press Club virtually on Wednesday afternoon, Mr Fletcher criticised Big Tech firms such as Facebook for resisting every attempt the government has made to regulate and reform.
Frances Haugen, a former Facebook data scientist, recently went public and appeared at a US Congressional hearing, saying that Facebook knew it was steering young users towards damaging content and that Instagram is “like cigarettes”, and urged policymakers to take action.
“Facebook knows that they are leading young users to anorexia content,” Ms Haugen told the hearing.
“Congress can change the rules Facebook plays by and stop the harm it is causing. I came forward, at great personal risk, because I believe we still have time to act. But we must act now.”
Mr Fletcher said these reports served as a reminder for the need to regulate Big Tech firms.
“What we’ve seen over the past few days in the statements from the Facebook whistleblower, in the US Congressional hearing and in associated media coverage, is a reminder of the significance of these issues,” Mr Fletcher said.
“It is not greatly surprising to me, given that with just about every change that we have sought to make in our time in government there has been resistance from the tech giants.
“That is true of the News Media Bargaining Code, true of online safety legislation, it is true of the change we made a few years ago to remove the exemption from GST for transactions conducted online under a certain threshold.”
There have been two significant pieces of legislation passed by the Australian Parliament this year focusing on reigning in the powers of Big Tech firms – the News Media Bargaining Code at the start of the year and the Online Safety Act in recent months.
The government may intervene if the current self-regulation approach to disinformation and misinformation on platforms such as Facebook isn’t working, the minister said, with the new Online Safety Act powers to come into effect from next year.
The federal government will also be pushing for a “safety by design” approach from these companies, similar to that used by car companies, he said.
“Our eSafety Commissioner has been an advocate for some time for safety by design. She makes the point that the Big Tech companies have the capacity to identify these issues and to use their technology to respond,” Mr Fletcher said.
“[eSafety Commissioner] Julie Inman Grant makes the point that there’s an interesting analogy with the global automotive sector. When cars are designed, safety is built into the design, it’s built in from the ground up and that reflects regulatory expectations.
“You need to be doing what we expect of other major industry sectors. Your products are very important and very popular, but safety must be a consideration, and I argue that we’re seeing a maturing of expectations in that area, and this implied special treatment that the internet industry has successfully gotten away with for some time is no longer acceptable to the community and certainly not acceptable to the Morrison government.”
Mr Fletcher was speaking days after his book, Governing in the Internet Age, was released.
During the speech, he also expressed his “astonishment” that the Greens had opposed the controversial Online Safety Act, and defended the effectiveness of the News Media Bargaining Code, saying it was “working as intended”.
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