- by Anna Pha
- The Guardian
- Issue #2063
Photo: pxfuel.com – public domain.
The rapid spread of social media, with millions of people regularly using digital platforms has seen a flood of misinformation and disinformation, commonly referred to as “fake news.” The Albanese government has released draft legislation for public comment which purports to hold digital platforms to account for online harmful mis- and disinformation.
The bill covers search engines, social media platforms, messaging and podcasting services.
It comes at a time of rising concern over the content of many web posts by extreme right people and organisations that have misled voters and caused serious harm including loss of life.
The question is how to address this situation which not only causes harm to individuals but raises the issues of freedom of speech and democratic rights.
The government says the bill responds to misinformation and disinformation “while balancing freedom of expression which is at the heart of democracy.” The provisions of the bill tell another story. They legitimise the use of censorship by digital platforms and give the digital platforms the power to be the arbiters of truth. Contrary to what the extreme right claim, the government will not become the “truth police.”
If enacted, the bill poses a serious threat to the democratic rights and freedom of speech of publications such as the Guardian – Workers’ Weekly, trade unions, anti-war, environmental, and other groups that post material online including podcasts, images, tweets, text, and data.
Users of digital platforms cannot be penalised for their content nor can they be compelled to remove untrue content that is harmful.
But the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) would require platforms to adhere to an industry code, developed by the industry and report annually on how they deal with harmful mis- and disinformation in relation to Australian users.
ACMA may set and enforce compulsory industry standards. There are penalties for failure to adhere to those standards of up to $6.8 million or five per cent of their global turnover – whichever is the greater.
ACMA will not have the power to determine if something is harmful misinformation or disinformation or to demand it be removed.
Under the bill, content on a digital service is misinformation if it is false, misleading or deceptive and “reasonably likely to cause or contribute to serious harm.” Whereas disinformation also involves intent to deceive another person.
The definition of “harm” is extremely broad and open to wide interpretation. Its definition includes several worrying provisions:
The first is “disruption of public order or society in Australia” – would this apply to the advocacy of trade union, environmentalist, peace, and other protest actions?
Another is “economic or financial harm to Australians, the Australian economy or a sector of the Australian economy” – would this apply to content on trade union actions, or calls to boycott or blockade logging or mining?
Or “harm to the health of Australians” – would this apply to nurses advocating industrial action online?
“Disinformation includes disinformation by or on behalf of a foreign power” – that conjures up instances where content does not align with what is being pushed by governments and Sky News, News Corporation, Nine Network.
The bill gives licence to these platforms to remove legitimate working class and progressive organisations and individuals whose views do not align with those of the ruling class from their platforms.
There are exemptions for satire, professional news, electoral material, education establishments, government content, and private messages.
The exemption of “professional news content” is defined as having “editorial independence from the subjects of the news.” Political parties such as the CPA, trade unions, environmental groups, peace groups, and other mass organisations posting material supporting their own campaigns and interests would not be exempt.
The bill feeds on the present climate of insecurity and loss of trust in governments. While it might be used to censor the fostering of hatred by right-wing and fundamentalist religious groups, it is a dangerous weapon that sets out to justify and bring about the censorship of working-views and actions.
Submissions close on 6th August.