Big Tech misinformation efforts slammed as ‘woefully inadequate’


Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The latest effort by social media giants to combat misinformation on their platforms has been slammed by multiple organisations as a “total farce” and “woefully inadequate”, as federal government rhetoric about further regulatory crackdowns escalates.

The Digital Industry Group Inc (DIGI), a group whose members include Facebook, Apple, Twitter and Google, announced on Monday morning that new governance arrangements would be rolled out for the Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation, developed last year following the competition watchdog’s digital platforms inquiry.

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Facebook removed 110,000 pieces of COVID misinformation posted by Australians last year. Credit: Twin Design / Shutterstock.com

The new arrangements include a new independent complaints subcommittee which will accept complaints from the public about potential breaches of the misinformation code by the social media giants and a new fact-checker of the companies’ annual transparency reports.

The new complaints oversight committee is made up of three members — Dr Anne Kruger, Victoria Rubensohn and Christopher Zinn — and will meet quarterly, although the actual number of meetings will be determined by the volume of complaints received.

The group will only be able to assess complaints from the public about social media companies potentially breaching the voluntary misinformation code, rather than individual pieces of content which may include misinformation.

“Especially in a pandemic, we can increasingly all agree that combating misinformation to protect public health and democracy is essential,” DIGI managing director Sunita Bose said.

“The [code] provides a strong framework for continued technology industry action and transparency on these complex challenges, and we wanted to further strengthen it with independent oversight from experts and public accountability.”

The updates to the voluntary code have been slammed by a number of organisations pushing for further regulation of the tech giants, with Centre for Responsible Technology fellow Jordan Guiao saying the latest announcement was a “total farce”.

“The oversight board is actually reviewing breaches of the code they’ve developed, it’s not about complaining about misinformation directly. That’s an important distinction. They expect the public to be familiar with the Australian code and then police breaches of that. That’s pretty inadequate,” Mr Guiao told InnovationAus.

“They’ve announced three members and they will meet [quarterly], in an environment dealing with thousands of problematic pieces of content on a daily basis. It’s woefully inadequate.”

According to Reset Australia, an advocacy group working to counter digital threats to democracy, the “strengthening” of the misinformation code was “laughable”.

“It’s trying to provide an appearance of taking action without making structural changes to the regulatory framework,” Reset Australia director of tech policy Dhakshayini Sooriyakumaran told InnovationAus.

“The elements of the code themselves don’t actually provide clear standards for what ‘good’ looks like. When you look at Facebook, which has opted in to every aspect of the code and is reporting on it, their transparency report doesn’t actually tell you much about some of these major concerns brought to light by recent events.”

In response to these concerns, DIGI’s Ms Bose said DIGI was supportive of regulation in areas like online defamation and online safety.

“… but there are some challenges with the use of regulation for the issue of misinformation specifically,” Ms Bose told InnovationAus.

“DIGI developed this code following Australian government policy that asked for a voluntary code to be developed on disinformation, which we expanded to include misinformation based on input from a public consultation, and today we’ve further strengthened the code with governance measures which we’ve been working on for several months.”

Centre for Responsible Technology’s Mr Guiao said attempts overseas, such as Facebook’s oversight board, have proven that self-regulation is not effective in reigning in the powers of Big Tech and combating misinformation.

“Facebook’s oversight board has dozens of members and a lot more resources – and they’re trying to recreate something similar in Australia with three people. It hasn’t worked there and it certainly won’t work here,” he said.

“Despite all the announcements and alleged improvements, harmful content keeps slipping through despite self-regulation. It doesn’t work.”

While the three members of the oversight board are well-qualified, Reset Australia’s Ms Sooriyakumaran said their roles were very limited in scope.

“The biggest challenge for them is that they haven’t been given actual powers of oversight. It’s called an oversight board but it’s challenging to see what oversight they can provide given they’re limited to public complaints relating to the code. That’s a narrow scope, and they have no powers of enforcement,” she said.

The announcement comes after days of fiery rhetoric from Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce signalling a further crackdown on Big Tech firms, with the potential to make them liable for defamatory content.

Mr Morrison on Friday labelled social media a “coward’s palace” and slammed “foul and offensive” comments made on digital platforms, flagging the potential for them to be made legally accountable for content published by their users.

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher told the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday that the government would be taking a “stronger position” on Big Tech.

“In a whole range of ways, we are cracking down on this idea that what is posted online can be posted with impunity. We need to take a stronger position on the platforms,” Mr Fletcher said.

“For a long time, they’ve been getting away with not taking any responsibility in relation to content posted on their sites.”

It’s been a big week for Facebook, with a whistleblower appearing before a US Congressional hearing claiming the company is aware of the harm it is causing to its users, especially young girls, but is putting its profits before people.

Reset Australia’s Ms Sooriyakumaran said events such as these had once again demonstrated that self-regulation is no longer an option for Big Tech.

“They’ve had a go at it and it has failed, and now we need to come up with better measures. The time for self-regulation has ended,” Ms Sooriyakumaran said.

“Everyone understands that it’s time Big Tech needs to be reigned in. That just shows that everyone appreciates just how serious the problem is. That’s a really good step in the right direction.”

Mr Guiao said all potential regulatory reforms should be on the table for Australia going forward.

“We need to assess all the different types of regulations at this point. There are different initiatives happening overseas and we’re trying different things and different regimes are learning from one another,” he said.

“At this point we need to be open to any type of regulation.”

Correction: DIGI’s complaints oversight committee is expected to meet quarterly, not every six months as originally reported.

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