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New federal laws coming to combat misinformation online

The Morrison Government will introduce legislation this year to combat harmful disinformation and misinformation online.

The legislation will give the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) new regulatory powers to hold big tech companies to account for harmful content on their platforms.

Minister for communications, urban infrastructure, cities and the arts, Paul Fletcher, made the announcement on the new powers today while releasing a report by ACMA on the adequacy of digital platforms’ current disinformation and news quality measures.

“ACMA’s report highlights that disinformation and misinformation are significant and ongoing issues,” Fletcher said.

“Digital platforms must take responsibility for what is on their sites and take action when harmful or misleading content appears. This is our Government’s clear expectation—and just as we have backed that expectation with action in recently passing the new Online Safety Act, we are taking action when it comes to disinformation and misinformation.”

Fletcher added that the Federal Government welcomed all five of the recommendations made in ACMA’s report.

ACMA will be given new information-gathering powers to incentivise greater platform transparency and improve access to Australia-specific data on the effectiveness of measures to address disinformation and misinformation.

Additionally, ACMA will be given reserve powers to register and enforce industry codes or make industry standards. This will encourage platforms to be ambitious in addressing the harms of disinformation and misinformation, while providing ACMA with the ability to hold platforms to account should their voluntary efforts prove inadequate or untimely.

A Misinformation and Disinformation Action Group will be established, bringing together key stakeholders across government and the private sector to collaborate and share information on emerging issues and best practice responses.

The plans for the new legislation come after Meta last week revealed their misinformation strategy for the upcoming federal election, which was criticised by Reset Australia as ‘inadequate’ and ‘last minute’.

Fletcher said that the new measures would build on the actions the Morrison Government and industry have already taken, including the voluntary Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation developed by industry with the oversight of ACMA, developed off the back of the ACCC’s Digital Platforms Inquiry Final Report.

The Code, developed by the Digital Industry Group Inc (DIGI) was launched in February 2021, and commits signatories to take action to reduce the impact of harmful disinformation and misinformation on their services.

Commenting on ACMA’s latest report and the Government’s response, DIGI managing director said:

“DIGI welcomes the release of the ACMA’s assessment of The Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation, as this report will be a critical tool in our efforts to strengthen the code and maximise its effectiveness in addressing mis and disinformation online in Australia.”

“DIGI supports the ACMA’s five key recommendations in principle and we look forward to further work with the Government on the details.”

“We’ll be closely reviewing the report’s findings, as part of DIGI’s planned review of the code, where we intend to proactively invite views from the public, civil society and Government about how it can be improved.”

Google’s Samantha Yorke, senior manager of government affairs and public policy, added:

“We were a founding signatory to the Code because we believe disinformation and misinformation needs to be addressed, as it can harm Australians and undermines our business to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

As the report details, we’ve signed up to all outcomes under the Code, invested in local initiatives, and provided millions in funding to assist governments and health agencies in delivering important health information via ads and prominent placement across Search and YouTube. We also blocked or removed more than 11,000 coronavirus-related ads from Australian-based advertisers for policy violations, and blocked more than 102,000 creatives from Australian-based advertisers for violating our misrepresentation ads policy.

We are continuing our efforts to address misinformation and disinformation. Currently, we are preparing our next report under the Code and will work to address ACMA’s suggestions.”

The Government plans to consult on the scope of the new powers in the coming weeks before introducing the legislation into parliament in the second half of 2022.

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