“It’s the collective ability to bring together our resources and expertise that I think is a real step forward,” Information and Privacy Commissioner Angelene Falk told The Australian Financial Review.
“It moves us from bilateral arrangements to a multi-lateral arrangement to ensure that all the opportunities and significant challenges the online environment brings are being dealt with through a cohesive regulatory system of oversight.”
“What this represents is a recognition of the speed at which the online environment is changing the kind of regulatory challenges that we are facing and the need for us to bring together and bring to better our collective resource and expertise to those challenges.”
Ms Falk pointed to the work of a similar body, the United Kingdom’s Digital regulation cooperation forum, where a secretariat has been created and staff seconded to support a more unified approach.
“I think that’s a great ambition and if you look at the issues they’re looking at, which is around design frameworks and the way in which digital platforms design their settings, processing algorithms, digital advertising technologies, issues of end-to-end encryption, all issues currently on the desktop of regulators around Australia,” she said.
In Australia, a multiplicity of regulators, service portals and policy agencies now overseeing a plethora of digital issues and a rapidly expanding book of one- off regulations.
These include child and adult safety, scams and identity theft, misinformation and obnoxious content, data sharing and surveillance, marketing overreach such as profiling of vulnerable groups, facial recognition and artificial intelligence practices, privacy breaches and anti-competitive behaviors such as preferencing of services to keep users locked into platforms.
The Commissioner for eSafety, Julie Inman Grant, said her agency was relatively new, which meant it was largely free of legacy constraints and hierarchy.
“That’s made us quite innovative and quite nimble, but we also aren’t resourced in the same way that say, an ACCC,” she said.
“It’s been (around) a long time and have vast numbers of investigators.
“We’re starting to see a lot of technology policy and regulatory overlap in our issues, so this is really kind of an intelligence sharing network. It’s a way to really try and leverage those core competencies.”
Ms Inman Grant said there were emerging areas of technology that required consideration such as the development of the virtual reality space known as the metaverse and the deployment of front-end distributed technologies like blockchain, known as Web 3.0.
“We’ll be regulating not just software or services, but hardware and products and things like haptic suits, maybe even … high-tech sex toys.”
The regulators are also challenged by much of federal privacy, communications, security, consumer and data regulation being hopelessly outdated.
This has left regulators having to rely on laws drafted before the internet and with multiple policy agencies, spread thinly across the federal government, trying to respond to the often complex issues rapid digital transformation is presenting,
Despite the speed of digitisation, reform initiatives have been slow to come forward with several major reviews such as a new digital identity regime, data sharing, facial recognition, a bolstering of consumer protections and a major overhaul of privacy laws taking years to developed and enacted.
The forum is to meet bi-monthly and will initially be led former media industry lobbiest, ACMA CEO Creina Chapman. The chair of the group is to rotate every six months.
“Regulators … face many of the same challenges – addressing emerging consumer harms, encouraging innovation while balancing protections, and countering the market power of these large, complex and diverse multinational entities,” a joint statement by the regulators said.
The regulators indicated an aim was to streamline overlapping regulation and reducing duplication, with the forum seeking increased cooperation and information sharing between digital platform regulators.
The forum is seeking to promote “proportionate, cohesive, well-designed and efficient implemented digital platform regulation.”
The new forum will share information, but the regulators have been careful to ensure their own enforcement and compliance work is not impacted, noting the forum is explicitly not a decision-making body.
The terms of reference also state the forum will have no bearing on members’ existing regulatory powers, functions or responsibilities. Nor will it does not create any new enforceable rights or impose any legally binding obligations on any of the regulators.
“Collaboration under the DP-REG is intended to be flexible and recognise the limits of each member’s respective regulatory frameworks,” the regulators said.
Nor are the regulators prevented from mutually trading or outside of the forum on issues related to digital platforms.
Significantly the forum does not include any cybersecurity, identity, data sharing, open banking or financial agencies. These include the Australian Signals Directorate, the Australian Tax Office, the Australian Securities and Investment Commission, Services Australia, the Digital Transformation Agency and the recently formed National Data Sharing Commissioner.
Nor does the forum include any of the half dozen policy setting departments such as Treasury, Infrastructure, Home Affairs, Prime Minister and Cabinet and Attorney Generals which have been developing policy and regulatory responses to the increasing digitisation of the Australian economy.
These agencies can be invited to attend as required.