Australia To Give Media Regulator New Powers In Misinformation Push

Australia’s media regulator will be able to force internet companies to provide it with data on how they have handled misinformation and disinformation under upcoming laws, the government said on Monday.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (Acma) will also be given powers to enforce an industry code on platforms, and “reserve powers” to create new rules, the government said.

The planned laws are a response to an Acma study last year that found four-fifths of Australian adults had experienced misinformation about Covid-19 and 76 percent thought online platforms should do more about false and misleading content.

Image credit: Facebook

Misinformation

“Digital platforms must take responsibility for what is on their sites and take action when harmful or misleading content appears,” communications minister Paul Fletcher said in a statement.

Acma said users are most likely to see misinformation on larger platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

False narratives often begin with “highly emotive and engaging posts within small online conspiracy groups” and are “amplified by international influencers, local public figures, and by coverage in the media”, the regulator said.

Smaller platforms such as Telegram and “alternative social media services” are also increasingly used to spread misinformation due to their “less restrictive content moderation policies”, it added.

The regulator said a code of conduct adopted by platforms in 2021 is “too narrow” in that it requires that harm from social media posts to be both “serious” and “imminent” before tech companies take action.

‘Imminent’ danger

The requirement of “seriousness” is appropriate, but the requirement of “imminent” harm is likely to exclude “chronic harms” that can rsult from the “cumulative effect of misinformation over time”, such as harms to social cohesion and a reduction of trust in public institutions.

It cited the January 2021 US Capitol riots as an “example of the impact of longer-term chronic harms arising from the widespread belief in misinformation”.

Industry group Digi said only that it would consider removing that harm be “imminent” from the code when it is reviewed next year.

“The code’s current approach does not preclude action on what might be described as chronic harms, and we’ve certainly seen signatories report action on these in their transparency reports,” Digi said in a statement.

The group said it agrees “in principle” to the government’s recommendations, including the introduction of Acma “reserve powers” to introduce new binding rules.

Tech crackdown

It called for Acma’s role to include an appeals mechanism “in the event of disagreements in the final outcomes of complaints raised through Digi’s complaints portal”.

Acma also called for private messaging services to be included in the scope of the code as they are “known vectors of disinformation and misinformation”.

The regulator’s report was finished in June 2021, but was only released this week as the government prepares to tighten regulation ahead of an election that is due by May.

The opposition Labor party acused the government of taking too long to respond and promising the new powers in the “dying days of the 46th parliament”.

Many other countries are also seeking to rein in the powers of tech giants, with the EU introducing sweeping laws for the sector that are due to take effect by the end of 2022.

Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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