Interview with Leon Byner, FIVEaa

Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention

Leon Byner: You obviously value your privacy. And I think that’s not unusual, and you should be able to do that and you should have legislative help to do it. Well, the Hon David Coleman MP, Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, has announced a landmark privacy piece of legislation to protect you online and ensure that your privacy is actually supported by laws that are fit for purpose in the digital age. So I thought it might be very worthwhile to talk to the Assistant Minister to the PM on Mental Health, David Coleman. David, thanks for joining us today.

David Coleman: No worries, it’s good to be with you Leon.

Leon Byner: Tell us what you’ve done.

David Coleman: Yeah so there’s some really important issues in this legislation, particularly around kids. As you’d be aware there’s a lot of concern about the impact of social media on kids and their mental health. We’ve seen that through reporting recently about Facebook’s own internal documents, we know that from research that headspace and others have done. And so what this law does is it creates an obligation on the social media companies to act in the best interests of children when they use their data. And so what that means is, if a social media company was providing content to a child, using their data to provide content about eating disorders or extreme dieting or self-harm, or all those issues that so many parents are concerned about, that would be against the law under this new legislation, and the fines for breaching the law are very significant up to 10 per cent of the company’s entire Australian revenue. And for these companies, some of which are obviously very large companies, that’s many millions of dollars. So it’s a really important change. I guess historically what these social media companies have said, Leon, is frankly they say it’s all too hard, you know, it’s all too hard, we can’t control it, but they can. They use people’s data to target them with advertising…

Leon Byner: And they make money out of that.

David Coleman: They make a lot of money.

Leon Byner: And you don’t have to opt in or out, it just happens. Why don’t you do that? Why don’t you? Because it’s not unfair and a lot of other organisations have to, why don’t you think about doing that?

David Coleman: Well, there’s new provisions in the code that Michaelia Cash is bringing forward around the privacy rules and so on. The thing that I guess I’m particularly focussed on from a mental health perspective is kids, because we have seen real issues with kids and mental health. And so, for instance, another thing we’re doing in this law is the social media companies will have to take all reasonable steps to identify the age of users, and if someone’s under 16, they’ll have to get parental consent. So we don’t want our social media companies signing up young kids to these platforms, which can be dangerous for them, unless they’ve got their parental consent. And if they don’t have that parental consent, they haven’t followed all the right steps to get it, again really big fines are on the table. This is some of the most strong legislation in the world on this topic, and we’re doing that because for far too long social media companies have, frankly, completely disregarded the wellbeing of kids. They don’t care about Australian kids to be frank Leon. And what we’re doing with this legislation is saying: ‘well, you better start caring, you better start following these rules, and if you don’t, you’re going to face some very, very severe penalties.

Leon Byner: So what do we get out of this, is there a benefit as to what you’ve mandated now that will treat our young people with more reverence and some sort of collective responsibility?

David Coleman: Absolutely. So what it will mean is in the future, the duty to act in the best interests of kids will mean that some kinds of content that are provided to kids now by social media platforms will be against the law. So, for instance, nobody could argue that it’s in the best interests of the child to provide content about self-harm or about eating disorders or extreme dieting, obviously not in their best interests. So what this means is, it’s a very significant change because it means in the future, if those companies did that, the information commissioner who’s effectively the cop on the beat for the government would be able to go into that company to get all the internal documents, the emails, the research, et cetera, from that company to determine whether they’re complying or not. And if they’re not complying, fines of up to 10 per cent of their total revenue. And that’s a really important point because, you know, these are really big companies, and if the fine is small, then the risk, of course, Leon is they don’t do what we need them to do, which is change their behaviour. Ten per cent of revenue in Australia is many millions of dollars and that will get their attention. And we’ve got to do that because at the end of the day, the government’s responsibility is not to Facebook or Tik Tok or Snapchat or any of these companies, it’s to Australian kids and Australian parents. It also put parents back in control because in the future, if a parent of a child under 16 becomes aware that the child has an account with one of these platforms and they haven’t consented to it, the parent will be able to go to the commissioner and say that account was effectively set up against the law because I didn’t consent to it. And then the information commissioner will be able to go to that company and issue fines if they haven’t followed all the right steps.

Leon Byner: So how often does it happen that these platforms are set up without young consumers asking for such a thing?

David Coleman: Basically the way they work, Leon, is the interest that you show when you’re on a social media platform will then be tracked by the social media company, and they will use that to provide further content on that topic. So let’s take an example where, let’s take an adult who’s interested in Port Adelaide and lives in Whyalla, et cetera. They will then serve ads about Whyalla or about Port Adelaide and so on. So that’s fine for adults, adults can handle that. But if it’s a child and maybe the child has shown concerns about their physical appearance or their body image, sometimes what these platforms will then do is provide content to that child that’s dangerous, that might lead that child towards further mental health problems, towards eating disorders, towards developing further body image problems. And for parents of kids, this is a massive concern. And so what this new requirement will do is, it will say if you, social media company, have a child on your platform, you can’t do that anymore. So you can provide content to the child that’s in their best interests, but you can’t provide content that’s not in their best interests. Now, social media platforms, Leon, they’re going to say this will be really hard, it’s going to require a change to our business practises and, you know, it will require a change to their business practises. And a change to their business practises is required because their current business practises are unacceptable. And so Michaelia Cash the Attorney-General and I have been working on this legislation for the last few months. It’s going out to public consultation now, and our plan is to put this to the parliament early in the new year. And once that legislation comes into force, it will make some very, very significant changes that will help to protect Australian kids.

Leon Byner: I hope we’ll talk again, I’m sure we will. Thank you David Coleman. That’s the Assistant Minister to the PM for Mental Health with some pretty important news and we’ll follow this.

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