Leon Delaney: Donald Trump has had and the I guess, the avid enthusiasm that his followers have for everything there has to say, but Twitter has decided that some of the things he has to say are simply not acceptable. Now, while we can sit back here in Australia and nod and smile about goings on halfway around the world, there are increasing concerns that social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, various other platforms are perhaps exercising a little too much power in deciding what you and I and our politicians can and cannot say on their platforms. Do they have a responsibility to regulate intemperate speech or should they allow people to say whatever they damn well please? Well, there's a growing number of Australian politicians who are a little concerned that perhaps social media platforms may be at risk of going too far and stifling free speech. One of them is New South Wales Senator and chair of the Select Committee on Financial Technology and Regulatory Technology, Senator Andrew Bragg on the phone now. Good afternoon.
Andrew Bragg: Leon, how are you?
Leon Delaney: Very well, thanks. Thanks for joining us today. Censorship is a hot topic right now, and a lot of people have pointed out social media platforms and accused them of censorship and in the United States suggested that it's contrary to the First Amendment. But, of course, these are private companies. They can choose what's published on their platforms and what's not published, can't they?
Andrew Bragg: Well, I think for too long these organisations have been viewed as sort of public organisations when they're not. They are, as you say, private companies. And they're very much like your organisation, they're publishers, and they can decide effectively what's on these platforms. It is not for us as policy makers or as a government to tell them what they can and can't publish. That's not the system we have, but they cannot run systems where they contravene our laws, especially in relation to incitement of violence or in relation to defamation, for instance.
Leon Delaney: All right. But obviously, President Trump has been accused of incitement of violence. So under those circumstances, do you think Twitter has done the right thing in suspending his account?
Andrew Bragg: Well, as long as they do that consistently, it's up to them, they're a private organisation, and they are entitled to run their affairs in that way, but they've got to be consistent. So it's no good them leaving anti-Semitic, for example, or defamatory statements on their platforms. They've got to be consistent. And so I think it's very important that they take this this consistency point very seriously.
Leon Delaney: Now, of course, some of your colleagues have been arguing that perhaps further regulation should be imposed on these platforms to prevent them from exercising undue or unfair censorship. Do you think there's a case to be made for that to happen?
Andrew Bragg: Well, I think the question for us as policy makers is what are we going to do to ensure that there is consistency in this space? I mean, these are although they are private companies, they are very powerful. They have enormous reach, perhaps like the railways and the oil companies did in centuries gone by and so in other areas where we thought they have had too much power, such as Google search and Facebook news. In relation to media companies, we’re proposing to put in place a code of conduct. So we have conducted some market intervention there where we thought it was justifiable. But, you know, in this case, as I say, if they want to intervene in their own products it's up to them, but they've got to be consistent, in my view.
Leon Delaney: In the past, the big concern people have had is when social media platforms have failed to remove offensive content or objectionable content. Now, we've got the opposite argument taking place, though, suggesting that there needs to be some sort of kerb placed upon them to ensure that they don't remove content arbitrarily. Is there a happy medium to be found.
Andrew Bragg: Well, I mean, the balance here is how do you balance free speech and free economy. Now as part of a free economy, you have free businesses and these businesses, whether they're media companies or some other organisation, they are just that they are private organisations. So I think it's all consistent, actually, that they are responsible as semi publishers. I mean, these are not the same as newspapers, but they are publishers for the content on their platforms. And so whether it's the president of the United States or SBC worker from Shepparton, it's got to be the same standard that applies. And in the case of New South Wales, where we have laws which guard against incitement and guard against defamation, and these platforms are not above our laws and they need to comply with them.
Leon Delaney: Indeed. George Christensen, one of your government colleagues, seems to be a lot more vocal in this. And even the deputy prime minister or the acting prime minister today, Michael McCormack, has made comments that seems to support the idea of imposing some sort of regulatory framework around social media platforms to ensure that they can't simply arbitrarily remove your content. Is there a debate yet to be really fully explored here?
Andrew Bragg: Well, I don't think the debate has really started. I mean, I think the removal of President Trump is really crossing the Rubicon. I mean, that's a moment where the social media platforms crossed the Rubicon. So the debate is just commenced in my judgement. And so the question is, what are they going to do with all the material on their platforms which already transgress our laws, especially in relation to incitement and defamation? Now, one of my parliamentary colleagues, Anne Webster, who's the member for Mallee, has had, you know, highly defamatory information published about her, which she has sought legal remedy to have removed. But their platforms have not been, as I understand it, particularly helpful. And so I would I would like to see if the platforms do this at their own volition and if not, look to put in place a code of conduct and if that doesn't fail, then you'd have to look at further, more onerous obligations that could be considered by Canberra.
Leon Delaney: Yeah, there are those who are concerned that the move to remove, to get rid of President Trump's account is a challenge to free speech. Is there a threat to free speech that's at play here or are people missing the point? And they should be more focused on what you're saying and focusing on the consistency and making sure the things that are truly objectionable are, in fact, removed.
Andrew Bragg: I think people are missing the point, I think it is very important that people understand that these are private businesses. If you believe in a free economy, you can't force people to publish things on private platforms. It is a private platform in which the users agree under the terms and conditions and the private platform is decided to make this change. Well, I think that that platform, Twitter should do it should apply that standard across the board, and it should be looking to remove anti-Semitic and other incitement, which appears on its platforms across the world. And certainly in my state of New South Wales, I want to see it, you know, remove information which is defamatory or also potentially driving incitement to violence.
Leon Delaney: What about politicians like George Christensen, who has a history of posting and reposting items on social media that perhaps might be considered by some to be dubious or even offensive? He's readers...
Andrew Bragg: It doesn't matter if it's dubious or offensive. I mean, we're not talking I'm not talking about misinformation. What I'm talking about is incitement or defamation.
Leon Delaney: Okay.
Andrew Bragg: Misinformation is entirely different and I think if you try to regulate misinformation, to be frank, I think you are getting into a territory of censorship in a very dangerous position. So what I'm concerned about is that there are social media platforms which host information which is based on incitement or we're trying to drive incitement.
Leon Delaney: Yeah.
Andrew Bragg: Or is defamatory. That's where I draw the line.
Leon Delaney: Sure. But misinformation has been a great problem, hasn't it, both in the United States and here, particularly in dealing with the COVID-19 health crisis, where some misinformation is in fact quite dangerous. So doesn't something need to be done about that as well?
Andrew Bragg: Well, I'm a lawmaker and I'm worried that our laws aren't always properly enforced in the Wild West of social media. Where often, too often anything can go. I'm not worried about misinformation relative to my concerns about people being defamed for no good reason or worse, there being violence incited against people because they're Jewish, for example. So that is where my concern lies.
Leon Delaney: Indeed, while there's, I guess, some distance for this debate to go yet, thanks very much for your time today.
Andrew Bragg: No worries. Thanks a lot. Cheers.
Leon Delaney: Thanks