If you were to ask Australians who they least trust to decide what is true or false, government and big tech would be at the top of the list.
Yet the Albanese Government has proposed laws which will see government and multi-billion dollar social media companies become the arbiters of what the truth is.
The idea of government collaborating with foreign-owned companies to limit the ability of Australians to be able to express views and opinions in the public square is anathema to democracy and freedom of speech.
Unsurprisingly, this draft legislation has been strongly criticised by an array of experts. Top Australian media lawyer Justin Quill has said “the misinformation and disinformation bill is as bad a legislative idea or concept as I’ve seen”. The Victorian Bar’s submission notes that “the bill has the potential to interfere with freedom of expression in Australia, as well as negatively impact freedom of speech”, which it rightly acknowledged as “the lifeblood of democracy”. The Australian Human Rights Commission has told a Senate Committee that there are “inherent dangers” in any government body or social media platform becoming the sole arbiter of truth.
Even Twitter and Meta, who have at various times enthusiastically censored opinions and views their US-based management don’t agree with, have expressed concerns about the free speech impacts of the Bill.
The tactic of censoring the views of ordinary citizens on the grounds of so-called “misinformation” is one employed by authoritarian regimes as a tool of maintaining control over public debate. The Chinese Government, for example, blocks many social platforms from operating in the country, and routinely has regulators remove accounts on those that are allowed to operate for “spreading misinformation”.
The Albanese Government’s proposal would see a government-appointed regulator given powers to fine social media companies millions of dollars if they don’t take down what the government deems to be “misinformation”. Misinformation, by the way, is not defined by the Government as content which is deliberately false and intended to deceive. Misinformation is simply anything which the government regulator or social media companies decide, in their apparent infinite wisdom, is false or misleading and could cause “serious harm”.
Governments frequently categorise opposing views as ‘misinformation’ or ‘fake news’. Does anyone really want the government to gift itself (and any future government) the power to force social media companies to take down content it doesn’t want in the public square? And do you also trust Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk or TikTok to make the right decision and act in your interests when it comes to judging what’s true or not?
The intent of the government is made clear by the fact there is no equivalent penalty for platforms which censor information which turns out to be accurate. The Albanese Government has even exempted anything they say as being considered misinformation. Yet an independent, minor party or opposition politician or a member of the public responding to a Government claim can be declared to be spreading misinformation.
Everybody knows that the internet is full of false information. Genuine disinformation campaigns by hostile foreign actors are of course a concern, and one which the Senate Committee on Foreign Interference on Social Media which I’m a member of has recently released bipartisan recommendations to counter through greater transparency.
But the Government seeking to take control of deciding what is true and false, and co-opting big tech to do the day-to-day enforcement work for them, is clearly a concept which threatens our democratic process. It's apparent to almost everyone who has read the Bill, including the social media companies themselves, that if this Bill passes platforms will aggressively censor all content that the government of the day could possibly deem to be “misinformation” in order to avoid being hit with massive fines.
The Coalition will strongly oppose these appalling proposals, meaning the Greens and crossbench Senators are likely to decide whether they trust government and big tech to police the speech of 25 million Australians. We can only hope they make the right choice.
*This opinion piece appeared in the Mercury newspaper on 22 August 2023
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