Australian Human Rights Commission Fears for Orwellian Misinformation Laws

The Australian Human Rights Commission has warned against giving any body the power to be “the sole arbiter of truth”, as the nation’s media watchdog concedes that concerns raised about Labor’s proposed misinformation laws that will give it elevated powers are “valid”. The nation’s top human rights body told a Senate committee in a submission that there were “inherent dangers” in any body – be it government, a government taskforce or a social media platform – becoming the sole arbiter of truth. The warning, contained in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry into foreign interference through social media, emerges amid mounting criticism of the “Orwellian” bill that will grant the Australian Communications and Media Authority powers to fine social media giants millions of dollars for misinformation and content it deems “harmful”.

“There is a real risk that efforts to combat online misinformation and disinformation by foreign actors could be used to legitimise attempts to restrict public debate, censor unpopular opinions and enforce ideological conformity in Australia,” the submission said. “All efforts to combat misinformation and disinformation need to be accompanied by transparency and scrutiny safeguards to ensure any limitations imposed upon freedom of expression are no greater than absolutely necessary and strictly justified.” Senior bureaucrats from the ACMA were grilled about the proposed legislation by the committee in a hearing, with the body’s chair Nerida O’Loughlin admitting concerns raised by social media giants Meta and Twitter were “valid” but she wasn’t “quite sure I understand the reasoning”.

“They wanted to be engaged through this exposure draft process, and obviously Meta raised these issues about the standard and their concerns about penalties,” she told the committee. “That’s what they’ve said that they’re thinking about and are prepared to propose alternatives and submissions to the government over this exposure draft.” The bill has been criticised by senior Coalition figures, including James Paterson, David Littleproud, Dan Tehan, Barnaby Joyce and Bridget McKenzie, as well as by some senior lawyers who described it as “inherently wrong” and a “dangerous piece of legislation”. Opposition communications spokesman David Coleman said an admission from senior public servants from the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts that the bill would capture content that was not “intended to cause harm” was concerning.

“This hearing has confirmed the huge problems with Labor’s misinformation bill,” he said. “Officials have acknowledged that under Labor’s law, something can be ‘misinformation’ even if the person making the statement holds that view in good faith and has no intention to mislead anyone. “It’s inevitable that under this law, platforms would self-censor large amounts of content, so they don’t fall foul of ACMA and incur big fines. This is very likely to mean suppression of legitimately held views of Australians.” The department’s deputy secretary, Richard Windeyer, rebuffed any suggestion the bill would turn the government into the “Ministry of Truth”, telling the committee the ACMA would not directly monitor social media content under the proposal.

“That isn’t what the bill does,” Mr Windeyer said. “That is far from the role envisaged or provided for ACMA under the provisions of this proposed bill. “The focus and the structure of this bill … the premise of the bill is based around the platforms themselves being responsible for the content that is on their platforms. “The provisions of this bill fundamentally are about providing a regulatory mechanism to back in the existing voluntary mechanism which goes to systems and processes rather than assessment of content itself.” Mr. Windeyer added: “It’s just not envisaged as a role for government in this bill at all.”

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

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