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The Federal Government has proposed legislation to strengthen the authority of Australia’s media watchdog in dealing with online platforms that spread false information, under which they could face hefty financial penalties.  

Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland said: “Mis and disinformation sows divisions within the community, undermines trust and can threaten public health and safety”. 

“The Albanese Government is committed to keeping Australians safe online, and that includes ensuring the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has the powers it needs to hold digital platforms to account for mis and disinformation on their services,” said Rowland. 

Under the proposed legislation, ACMA would be granted the power to compel digital platforms to maintain records related to misinformation and disinformation. Moreover, these records would have to be handed over upon request. 

ACMA would have the authority to request a “code of practice” for the industry, outlining strategies to combat misinformation. Companies failing to adhere to this code could be subject to penalties of up to $2.75 million or two per cent of their global turnover, whichever is higher. 

Finally, ACMA would be able to establish and enforce its own industry standard. Violations of this standard could lead to companies being fined up to $6.8 million or five per cent of their global turnover. 

ACMA’s powers would extend to various online platforms, including social media, news-aggregators, and podcasts.  

It is important to note that it would not have the authority to remove individual pieces of content, and the new powers would not apply to professional news content. 

The draft bill defines misinformation as unintentionally false, misleading, or deceptive contact. Disinformation is defined as misinformation intentionally disseminated to cause serious harm. 

David Coleman, Shadow Minister for Communications, expressed concern about the proposed legislation, stating “this is a complex area of policy and Government overreach must be avoided”. 

“The public will want to know exactly who decides whether a particular piece of content is ‘misinformation’ or ‘disinformation’,” he said. 

The public will want to know exactly who decides whether a particular piece of content is ‘misinformation’ or ‘disinformation’.

David Coleman, Shadow Minister for Communications

“The significant penalties associated with this legislation potentially places substantial power in the hands of government officials, said Coleman.

Rowland explained the proposed framework aims to “strike the right balance between protection from harmful mis and disinformation online and freedom of speech”.    

During the drafting of the bill, ACMA engaged in discussions with major social media companies. The legislation is intended to enhance and bolster the voluntary code created by the Digital Industry Group Inc. (DIGI), and adopted by eight digital platforms including Facebook, TikTok, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Redbubble, Apple and Adobe. 

Public consultations for the Communications Legislation Amendment (Combating Misinformation and Disinformation) Bill 2023 are now open and will conclude on 6 August 2023.  

“I encourage all stakeholders to make a submission and look forward to introducing the Bill into Parliament later this year, following the consultation process,” said Rowland.