Laws are only as good as the ability to enforce them, and in 2023 technology policy was accompanied by concerns with our regulators and their various roles and abilities to hold tech giants to account.
The Office of the eSafety Commissioner, one of the most visible and vocal tech giant challengers, had its fine placed against Twitter ignored.
There were calls for a specific AI Commissioner to tackle the burgeoning thorny topic of AI regulation, and the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has developed a three-Commissioner model to oversee privacy and freedom of information.
Throughout the year, technology policy progressed in fits and starts. Some from the previous government struggling to get through or inched forward in a painfully slow manner. Others like the favourite topic of the day (AI) generating a faster, or not fast enough response, depending on who you ask.
The Combatting Misinformation and Disinformation Bill shows how vexed the topic of misinformation is, and how tricky it is to regulate.
The Bill was an evolution from the weak Voluntary Code of Practice on Mis- and Disinformation, a self-regulating scheme that some digital platforms signed up to. The Bill was to grant ACMA, the media regulator, more powers to question tech platforms on their tactics to combat misinformation.
Perhaps it’s a reflection of the public’s lack of confidence in the media regulator that the Bill became a subject of wide criticism and controversy.
Conservatives instantly labelled it a ‘threat to freedom of speech’, while others worried about the vague definitions of harm. The backlash meant that the government has now postponed it until next year, promising to ‘improve the bill’.
The much delayed review of the Privacy Act has inched forward with the government agreeing to several proposals from the Attorney General’s Office. The government has also restored standalone commissioners for privacy and freedom of information, with new appointees starting next year.
The mammoth task of updating and overseeing our rights to privacy in the digital age had many calling for more support to be given to the under-resourced Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.
The review will likely continue over the next year or two, with the majority of proposals requiring further consultation.
The topic du jour – Responsible AI is in the midst of a consultation as world governments try to grapple with how to regulate artificial intelligence.
Spurred on by the startling release of ChatGPT, tech platforms are in a race to be the new gatekeepers of this next phase of our digital experience, while governments try to redeem their failures in properly safeguarding against the harms and excesses of digital platforms over the last decade.
Some argue that existing regulations are enough to govern AI, while others call for specific authorities, like an AI Commissioner.
Regional variations are beginning to show, with countries like Singapore preferring a voluntary approach, while the EU and Canada preferring stronger regulations. The US and UK have new initiatives, while Australia appears to be biding its time.
Regardless, this topic will be one of the most consequential in tech policy for the next few years, as we collectively try to understand the implications of this transformative technology.
And finally, the latest in the stalwart ACCC’s Digital Platform Services Inquiry reports on the dominance of tech platforms like Google and Amazon, and their continued expansion into other technologies like artificial intelligence.
The report warns of increased risks of harmful behaviour, such as self-preferencing, invasive data collection, and stifling innovation as the tech giants get even bigger and get a foothold into tomorrow’s technologies.
The ACCC has recommended a standalone ombudsman to handle these extra risks particularly as it relates to scams. The Digital Platform Services Inquiry is expected to hand its final report to the Treasurer by March 2025, meaning this substantive inquiry will be live for at least the next couple of years.
With a raft of tech related regulatory initiatives at various stages, Australia’s tech policy report card for 2023 could probably be described as a middling ‘satisfactory’. While many are underway, there are still such significant reforms that need to be pushed forward.
We must not lose momentum nor the will to hold tech giants to account, even as the tidal wave of newer technologies like artificial intelligence threaten to upend the technological landscape.
Jordan Guiao is Director of Responsible Technology at Per Capita’s Centre of the Public Square, and author of Disconnect: Why we get pushed to extremes online and how to stop it.
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