Regarding protecting users’ right to free expression online, Labor has a mixed track record. In 2008, they made an attempt to implement a filter on the internet, which was a concept that struggled to gain traction due to the immense practical challenges it posed until it was finally abandoned in November of 2012.
There is no evidence of such excesses in the proposal to grant the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) the authority to strengthen and enforce the social media misinformation and disinformation code. This plan is eminently sensible and displays no such excesses.
And so, the Albanese government finds itself the focus of an overreaction by the media to modest adjustments, as well as an opportunistic Coalition going on the offensive about something it had every intention of doing if it had been re-elected and attacking it for doing so.
The Australian newspaper gives weight to claims made by social media giants that the ACMA plan will limit free expression, and Peta Credlin, who served as Tony Abbott’s former chief of staff, has warned against the development of a “ministry of truth.”
In an article published in the Spectator, the Liberal senator Claire Chandler referred to it as a danger to democracy. Additionally, the shadow minister of home affairs, James Paterson, is concerned about it and has signalled that the Coalition will not go along with it.
But there are a few things that stand in the way of a successful scare campaign in this case: the reforms are actually rather a tiny progression of self-regulation, and as recently as this time last year, the Coalition was totally in favour of them.
Concerned that the standards already in place that were developed by the industry were “too narrow” to prevent all of the harms that could be caused by misinformation and disinformation, Acma submitted a request to the Morrison government in June 2021 requesting information-gathering capabilities and “reserve powers” to adopt binding rules and codes of conduct.
In March of 2022, the individual who was in charge of communications at the time, Paul Fletcher, gave his approval to the change and stated that it would “encourage platforms to be ambitious in addressing harms of disinformation and misinformation, whereas, while providing Acma with ability to hold platforms to account if their voluntary efforts prove inadequate as well as untimely.”
The Coalition campaigned for the election in May 2022 with the promise of introducing new legislation that would hold large technology corporations accountable.
Labour agreed, and the Digital Industry Group Inc. (Digi), some of whose members include Google, Apple, Meta, Twitter, and TikTok, did not complain when Communications Minister Michelle Rowland recommitted to the strategy in January 2023.
The managing director of Digi, Sunita Bose, stated that the organization was pleased to hear the news that Labor intended to “reinforce Digi’s efforts and that it formalizes our long-term working relationship with Acma in relation to combating misinformation online.”
That’s hardly quite the end of the world, is it?
Acma will not obtain the authority to request that certain content or posts be removed from digital platform services, as both the communications department and the communications minister have made clear.
The policy is designed to act as a stick that will encourage improvements to be made to the voluntary code. Despite the fact that ACMA will obtain the right to impose a stricter code, there is no assurance that it will ever use those powers.
Therefore, rather than an Orwellian centralized agency that decides what is true and what is false, there should be an organization that promotes social media businesses to have some method to differentiate between the two. Even under these conditions, the “serious harm” criterion is required for policies to be enacted.
And exactly what kinds of grave injuries are we talking about here? Misinformation “about a group of Australians inciting other persons to commit hate crimes against that group” is one of the examples that the department cites. Other examples include “undermining the impartiality of an Australian electoral management body” and “that caused people to ingest or inject bleach products to treat a viral infection.” Other examples include “that caused people to ingest or inject bleach products to treat a viral infection.”
If social media corporations are required to establish controls on posts that incite another Cronulla riot, or January 6 insurrection, or for people to try to cure Covid with bleach, does this represent a significant restriction on people’s right to free speech?
Even more galling than the Coalition’s about-face is the fact that the Morrison administration actually did adopt a more direct form of control of what can be stated on the internet. This is what makes the Coalition’s about-face even more galling.
The eSafety Commissioner was given the authority to require social media businesses and other websites to remove anything that the commissioner regarded to be bullying. Individuals who disobey the law were subject to fines of up to $137,500. This power was granted to the eSafety Commissioner as part of the 2021 Online Safety Act.
So, a government agency that dictates that particular bullying messages come down did not raise concerns about becoming a Ministry of Truth when it was passed by the Coalition; however, permitting Acma to impose stronger standards if industry self-regulation fails is Orwellian when it is done by Labor.
This situation is starting to sound an awful lot like the proposal that the Gillard government made in 2013 to establish a public-interest media advocate. During that time, there was a school of thought that suggested companies seeking the benefits of an exemption from the Privacy Act should require conventional media’s self-regulation to meet a certain set of criteria.
As a response, the Daily Telegraph published an article in which it depicted the then-Communications Minister Stephen Conroy with other “despots” who attempted to restrict the free press, including Stalin. The article then apologized… to Stalin.
Once again, we have the Coalition helping a type of campaigning journalism, this time advocating not so much against the policy, which was acceptable just a year ago, but rather against the proponent of the policy.