Australia’s Proposed Mis/Disinformation Bill Much Worse Than Feared

Last Sunday Australia’s Communications Minister Michelle Rowland released draft legislation aimed at empowering the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to compel social media companies to take down “harmful fake news” under the threat of millions in fines.

Public consultation has now opened for the Communications Legislation Amendment (Combatting Misinformation and Disinformation) Bill 2023 with any Australian able to make a submission until Sunday, August 6.

The fact sheet on the Australian Department of Infrastructure website claims the “rapid spread of false, misleading and deceptive information online has resulted in a multitude of harms from disrupted public health responses to foreign interference in elections and the undermining of democratic institutions”.

This Orwellian statement is alarming enough. It is clear that the Albanese Government believes there wasn’t enough censorship online during the pandemic of alleged misinformation that turned out to be fact. Foreign interference could lead to the censorship of news stories about Australia that come from overseas media. Undermining democratic institutions could lead to censorship of opinions that disagree with the policies of any government of that day.

But when you deep dive into the draft legislation itself this proposed misinformation and disinformation bill is much worse than feared. Harm is defined in the legislation as any “hate speech”, disruption of public order, harm to the democratic process, harm to the health or finances of Australians and to the environment or economy.

This legislation could be used by ACMA to order social media companies to take down any content they deem harmful or hateful based on these broad definitions of harm.

It defines misinformation and disinformation as content containing information that is false, misleading or deceptive and is likely to cause or contribute to serious harm.

The real extreme danger to our democracy is a government agency deciding it is the single source and arbiter of truth. If this legislation was in place during the covid lockdowns all the dissenting voices online could have been crushed immediately potentially even further extending and expanding government tyranny.

If this proposed bill is passed online social media censorship won’t be immediate allowing the government to claim opposition to it was all part of a scare campaign. This is because ACMA will only wield this power and ratchet up its censorship orders if a social media company is not voluntarily taking down so-called misinformation and disinformation. Then it can impose a new “code” on that company and can even enforce an industry-wide “standard” to force digital platforms to remove harmful content.

The maximum penalty for systemic breaches of a specific code imposed on a social media company would be $2.75 million or 2 per cent of global turnover – whichever is higher. The maximum penalty for breaching an industry standard would be $6.88 million, or 5 per cent of a company’s global turnover – whichever is higher.

We saw last week how Australia’s eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant is now utilizing the powers available to her under the Online Safety Act 2021 to impose fines of $687,000AUD a day on Twitter if the company does not explain to her how they’re implementing online safety expectations. She is going after Twitter because new owner Elon Musk is allowing more free speech on the platform.

We can be certain if the Communications Legislation Amendment (Combatting Misinformation and Disinformation) Bill 2023 is passed ACMA will wield its new censorship powers in a similar extreme manner as the eSafety Commissioner now is.

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