Australia’s media regulator will be able to request information from digital platforms on their efforts to reduce the spread of harmful misinformation and disinformation under legislative reforms planned for later this year.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority is set to receive new information-gathering and record-keeping powers, as the scale of online misinformation and disinformation continues to grow.
The powers will also allow the regulator to register an enforceable industry code and make standards if industry self-regulation cannot adequately mitigate the threats from misinformation and disinformation or if code administration is inadequate.
The change is intended to “support and strengthen” the voluntary code arrangements established by the Digital Industry Group (DIGI), which the government says will now extend to non-signatories of the code.
Current signatories are Adobe, Apple, Google, Meta, Microsoft, Redbubble, TikTok and Twitter.
On Friday morning, the federal government committed to legislating new powers in line with recommendations in ACMA’s June 2021 report ‘on the adequacy of digital platforms’ disinformation and news quality measures’.
The ACMA report also recommended establishing a Misinformation and Disinformation Action Group to “support collaboration and information-sharing between digital platforms”, but the Albanese government has yet to announce if this will be established.
In March 2022, the previous Coalition government made the same commitment to expanding ACMA’s powers in the second half of 2022 if it was re-elected.
Public consultation on the draft bill will take place in the first half of 2023 before being introduced to Parliament later this year.
Communications minister Michelle Rowland said that “misinformation and disinformation poses a threat to the safety and wellbeing of Australians, as well as to our democracy, society and economy”.
“A new and graduated set of powers will enable the ACMA to monitor efforts and compel digital platforms to do more, placing Australia at the forefront in tackling harmful online misinformation and disinformation,” she said.
Originally launched in February 2021, the government told industry to develop the voluntary Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation in response to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission digital platforms inquiry.
It does not apply to private messages or emails, satire, authorised government content, and political advertising.
The code is based on the European Union Code of Practice. An expansion of ACMA’s powers was initially proposed by the competition watchdog in the digital platforms inquiry, which was released in July 2019.
When the code was first launched, the Centre for Responsible Technology described it as “woefully inadequate”.
A review of the code was completed by DIGI in December 2022, resulting in new or updated definitions for harm, political advertising, and digital advertising services and sponsored content.
The updated harm definition from “serious and imminent” to “serious and credible” followed criticism from ACMA that the former was too limited in scope. However, DIGI did not accept ACMA’s recommendation to move the code from a series of opt-in commitments to opt-out.
It also revised the scope of political advertising and allowed for companies to implement policies relating to issues-based advertising.
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