The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) may soon be granted greater regulatory powers against disinformation and misinformation online.
Minister for Communications Paul Fletcher announced the new powers following the release of an ACMA report on digital platforms’ current disinformation and news quality measures.
The report found that four-in-five Australians have seen “misinformation about COVID-19” and that people who “believe COVID misinformation” had lower levels of trust for health officials and authoritative sources.
“Digital platforms must take responsibility for what is on their sites and take action when harmful or misleading content appears,” Fletcher said. “This is our government’s clear expectation—and just as we have backed that expectation with action in recently passing the new Online Safety Act, we are taking action when it comes to disinformation and misinformation.”
The government has welcomed all five recommendations made by the report, including giving the ACMA formal information-gathering powers and improved access to Australians’ data.
The media authority will also be given reserve powers to register and enforce industry standards or create industry standards.
“This will encourage platforms to be ambitious in addressing the harms of disinformation and misinformation while providing ACMA with the ability to hold platforms to account should their voluntary efforts prove inadequate or untimely,” Fletcher said.
A Misinformation and Disinformation Action Group will also be established, composed of stakeholders across government and private sectors to collaborate and share information on emerging issues and best responses.
The digital industry group, DIGI, of which Apple, Google, and Meta are founding members, said it supported the ACMA recommendations “in principle” and looked forward to working with the government on the details.
“We’ll be closely reviewing the report’s findings, as part of DIGI’s planned review of the code, where we intend to proactively invite views from the public, civil society, and government about how it can be improved,” DIGI Managing Director Sunita Bose said in a statement.
However, it is not clear how far reaching the new regulatory powers will extend over the media, and whether it could violate the rights of Australians.
It is also unclear how authorities would define as “misinformation” and “disinformation,” considering the ACMA report specifically touched on news surrounding COVID-19 that did not follow the prevailing mainstream narrative—much of which is currently being challenged through political and non-political processes.
The government previously restricted doctors from voicing their criticism of COVID-19 vaccines or the vaccination program.
In March 2021, the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) said there was “no place for anti-vaccination messages” in professional health practice and that any such claims by health practitioners could be subject to regulatory action.
“There is a real strong move to suppress criticism, legitimate criticism of the public health vaccination program,” emergency doctor David Berger told ABC radio in March 2021.