Concerns raised over Australian Misinformation Bill

Critics argue that the bill is vaguely worded and could encourage censorship, threatening free speech and democracy.

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The Australian federal government has proposed the Communications Legislation Amendment (Combating Misinformation and Disinformation) Bill to address the online spread of false and misleading information. However, concerns have been raised by experts and groups who argue that the bill’s vague wording and potential for censorship pose a threat to free speech and democracy.

The bill aims to amend the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, granting the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) the power to combat online misinformation and disinformation. ACMA would require platforms to report on their measures to combat ‘fake news’ and could alter existing media codes of practice or introduce new codes if stronger protections are necessary. ACMA would also be able to set enforceable standards for digital service providers.

While the government reassures that the bill will not involve content removal from platforms, critics argue that its definitions lack clarity and could lead to the censorship of unpopular or controversial opinions. Misinformation and disinformation are false, misleading, or deceptive information likely to cause serious harm. The Law Council of Australia warns of confusion and subjective application due to the broadness and imprecision of these definitions. The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) expresses concerns that the bill’s broad definitions may result in labelling unpopular opinions as misinformation and subsequent censorship.

Furthermore, the bill identifies the ‘disruption of public order or society in Australia’ as a form of harm but fails to clarify what constitutes such disruption. Critics argue that this concept of harm is prone to misuse, with historically critical social movements considered ‘disruptive’ by governments and powerful interests. There is concern that online campaigns on issues such as Australian refugee policy, taxation laws, or institutionalised racism could be labelled as misinformation, even if they have a factual basis.

Why does it matter?

Despite its aim to combat harmful misinformation, the bill requires amendments to address imprecise terminology and the potential for censorship. If passed without necessary changes, the account could jeopardise democracy instead of defending it. The bill is yet to be debated, allowing amendments to be made.