The Australian Government’s proposed new laws to crack down on misinformation and disinformation have drawn intense criticism for their potential to restrict free expression and political dissent, paving the way for a digital censorship regime reminiscent of Soviet Lysenkoism.
Under the draft legislation, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) will gain considerable expanded regulatory powers to “combat misinformation and disinformation,” which ACMA says poses a “threat to the safety and wellbeing of Australians, as well as to our democracy, society and economy.”
Digital platforms will be required to share information with ACMA on demand, and to implement stronger systems and processes for handling of misinformation and disinformation.
ACMA will be empowered to devise and enforce digital codes with a “graduated set of tools” including infringement notices, remedial directions, injunctions and civil penalties, with fines of up to $550,000 (individuals) and $2.75 million (corporations). Criminal penalties, including imprisonment, may apply in extreme cases.
Controversially, the government will be exempt from the proposed laws, as will professional news outlets, meaning that ACMA will not compel platforms to police misinformation and disinformation disseminated by official government or news sources.
As the government and professional news outlets have been, and continue to be, a primary source of online misinformation and disinformation, it is unclear that the proposed laws will meaningfully reduce online misinformation and disinformation. Rather, the legislation will enable the proliferation of official narratives, whether true, false or misleading, while quashing the opportunity for dissenting narratives to compete.
Faced with the threat of penalty, digital platforms will play it safe. This means that for the purposes of content moderation, platforms will treat the official position as the ‘true’ position, and contradictory information as ‘misinformation.’
Some platforms already do this. For example, YouTube recently removed a video of MP John Ruddick’s maiden speech to the New South Wales Parliament on the grounds that it contained ‘medical misinformation,’ which YouTube defines as any information that, “contradicts local health authorities’ or the World Health Organization’s (WHO) medical information about COVID-19.”