The internet is at a “turning point” and further regulation could be needed to keep tech giants in line, communications minister Mitch Fifield has said.
Speaking at the Sydney Institute on Tuesday, Senator Fifield said the internet was “no longer seen as an ungoverned space” and the government has a responsibility to regulate the industry.
“We are now at a turning point. There is global recognition that the internet cannot be ‘that other place’ where community standards and the rule of law does not apply,” Mr Fifield said.
“The internet is too interwoven into the fabric of our lives. We must ensure Australia is positioned to maximise the social and economic benefits,” he said.
But the Opposition has said the government has been “dragging its feet” on the issue and taken too long to finally address it.
In the speech Senator Fifield said it’s time for the internet to be regulated like a physical space.
“Laws and norms should apply in the virtual world just as they do in the physical world. This is increasingly being seen in tax law, copyright law, competition law, criminal law, civil law and privacy law,” he said.
“It’s a shared space, and all Australians should be able to participate online and reap the benefits of a globalised world without experiencing offensive or harmful content.”
“There’s a clear role for the government and industry to work together to ensure the interests of our community are protected, supported and promoted in the online environment, just as they are elsewhere.”
While this did not mean a “regulate first” approach, the government had an obligation to “ensure individuals and businesses engage in appropriate online behaviour.”
“The internet should be free from unnecessary government intervention. But where platforms fail to act to reduce harm, we won’t hesitate to do so. The community is watching, and we will act if the response of industry falls short of the mark,” Senator Fifield said.
Labor’s shadow minister for the digital economy Ed Husic said the government has taken too long to turn its attention to the internet.
“If it’s ungoverned it’s been ungoverned because of neglect by the government. We’ve been calling on a number of fronts for the government to get its act together,” Mr Husic told InnovationAus.com.
“The fact that it was mentioned in the speech is good, but it’s taken a hell of a long time for the government to get its act together,” he said. “Some people will think it’s great he’s thought it through, but this is stuff people have been thinking about for quite some time.”
The opposition has been pushing for action in a number of areas in the internet space, Mr Husic said.
“We’ve been calling for it on a number of fronts, for it to get its act together on the ethical framework of AI and the challenges of data to competition law. The way that data is maintained and protected is a public policy priority.
“We need a much better coordinated government approach on data. All of these things the government can play a part in,” he said.
While the government has said it will base a lot of its policies on the ACCC inquiry, Mr Husic pointed out that this was driven by former independent senator Nick Xenophon.
“It wasn’t something the government in its heart of hearts wanted to do. If Fifield is complaining about the internet being ungoverned, he needs to take a look at himself and realise the role he played on that, and the fact that he dragged his feet on it,” Mr Husic said.
The ACCC’s pivotal final report, which will likely include recommendations for further regulation and legislation, will be handed down after the next federal election, and Mr Husic said Labor would also utilise it if it is in government.
“If the ACCC has devoted a lot of thought and it comes up with recommendations, we will wait to see what they say and then obviously respond accordingly. You can’t ignore that volume of effort,” he said.
Senator Fifield told the Sydney Institute the areas of particular interest for the government include the market dominance of tech giants like Google and Facebook, the use of personal data and the impact on privacy, and the spread of “fake news”.
“We will be assessing the need for further reform, particularly given the far reaching impact of digital platforms – such as Google, Facebook and others,” he said.
“Platforms have the potential to enhance our democratic processes and levels of civic engagement.”
“However, there are real concerns emerging about the impact of digital platforms – particularly social media – on civic society.”
He also pointed to government regulation to make these platforms more responsible for the content that they host, pointing especially to “disinformation”.
“This is nothing new and has been around as long as we’ve had a functioning media. What is new is the ways it is spread and how its impact is being amplified online. Over the last few years we have seen an increase in intentionally misleading and inaccurate news.
“The size and reach of the major digital platforms intensifies this potential at an unprecedented scale and speed, meaning they can be used by state and private actors to intentionally cause public harm,” Senator Fifield said.
“It is clear that they regularly alter their content mix, through algorithms and human intervention. As larger digital platforms define and shape our engagement with government, businesses and each other, they should be much more accountable for the content on their platforms.”
Much of the government’s response and any potential legislation will lean heavily on the ACCC’s current inquiry into digital platforms, with the competition watchdog expected to hand in a draft report in December.
The inquiry is looking at the impact of digital giants like Google and Facebook on competition in the media and advertising sectors, and is due to deliver the final report by mid-next year.