The Morrison government’s plans to give regulators new powers to crack down on online speech is an authoritarian and dangerous policy that could just as easily have come from a Labor/Greens government.
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher recently announced the federal government will be rubber stamping a request from the Australian Communications and Media Authority (Acma) to be given new powers to force Big Tech companies to control the dissemination of ‘harmful’ disinformation on their platforms.
Acma wrote the proposals and laid the foundations for controlling digital speech by overseeing the development of the Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation. Having overseen its development, Acma now argues the Code is ‘too narrow’ and that they must be given new powers to coerce companies into compliance. Signatories to the Code subscribe to the vague commitment to reduce ‘the risk of Harms that may arise from the propagation of Disinformation and Misinformation’. According to the Code, ‘disinformation’ is ‘verifiably false or misleading or deceptive’ digital content spread via ‘inauthentic behaviours’ which is reasonably likely to cause ‘harm’.
‘Harm’ can account for acts which pose an imminent and serious threat to ‘democratic political and policymaking processes’, including something called ‘voting misinformation’. It’s one thing to talk about getting rid of ‘verifiably false’ content, but the question inevitably turns to who is responsible for verifying fact from fiction. On this front the Big Tech platforms have not covered themselves in glory in stamping out misinformation or disinformation.
Social media companies still flag users for sharing opinions and research into the efficacy of face masks and vaccine mandates, despite the science being contested.
The companies also censored ‘misinformation’ about the lab-leak theory on the origins of Covid-19, until May 2021, when it became a permissible topic of discussion.
Twitter notoriously banned the New York Post from posting on the platform in October 2020 for publishing an article about Hunter Biden’s recovered laptop, which detailed influence peddling and profiteering involving Biden and his father, then a candidate to be the US president. This was potentially explosive just weeks out from the presidential election, but was aggressively stamped out of the public square by traditional media and Big Tech. It was widely asserted to be ‘Russian disinformation’ until the New York Times admitted in March that the laptop reporting has been ‘authenticated’.
What the Big Tech companies have accomplished with their disinformation policies is not a mistake. The policies are operating exactly as intended.
‘Disinformation’ is a ruthlessly ideological concept. The point is not to ensure the accuracy of information in the public square. The point of disinformation policies is to ensure that facts and opinions that are unacceptable to the political elites, and those that share them, are marginalised in society.
Just recall how anyone who didn’t endorse the current views of the public health bodies and experts during the Covid-19 pandemic was excoriated for being callously indifferent to elderly people, if not morally equivalent to murderers.
The ideological taint of disinformation is also clear in its history. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, published in the waning years of Stalin’s regime in 1952, referred to the ‘dissemination of false reports intended to mislead public opinion. The capital press and radio make wide use of dezinformatsiya’.
Two years after Australia followed the Chinese Communist Party into imposing inhumane public health restrictions, the Morrison government has taken a page out of the Stalin playbook by attempting to banish online dezinformatsiya.
Anything the Soviet regime didn’t like was not only deemed wrong, but morally suspect. Engaging in disinformation amounted to collaboration with hostile forces. It was harmful to society. Of course, the reality was that Stalin was employing disinformation as an ‘active measure’ to undermine morale in the West. But during the Cold War, Western governments trusted the people enough that they didn’t feel the need to censor everything they thought might be Soviet in origin.
It is no surprise that a regulator would ask for more powers for itself, but this transparent attempt to control what people are allowed to say and believe should be rejected out of hand. Acma and the government are claiming the right to develop new tools to control what people are allowed to say and views people are allowed to be exposed to. It is completely incompatible with living in a free and liberal democratic society.
This episode reveals an arrogance that defines the political class. Labor offers no hope on this issue. Opposition communications spokeswoman Michelle Rowland has criticised the government at every step of the development of this censorious policy that it was still not going hard enough on clamping down on online ‘disinformation’.
In the same way that there were no public health restrictions that Labor didn’t believe it could implement harder, the ALP is firmly committed to challenging what it sees as misinformation. Rowland argued forcefully in 2020 that digital content platforms needed to do more to tackle ‘bushfire misinformation’. This would have meant stamping out (accurate) claims about the initial cause of the 2019-20 bushfires, as they distracted from speculative theories linking bushfires to ‘climate change’. Separately in 2021, the ALP national secretary Paul Erikson demanded Google take steps to ensure its platforms are not ‘exploited for misinformation’ at the 2022 election. Labor didn’t like the claims that were made about their tax policies so expected their political opponents to be regulated into silence.
It was only in 2013 that Julia Gillard and Stephen Conroy were forced to drop plans to regulate the print media by introducing a Public Interest Media Advocate and News Media Council. It failed to win sufficient support in the Senate where the Liberal party opposed new controls on speech.
That was then. Now a Liberal party thoroughly depleted of principles offers its own digital Ministry of Truth.
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Morgan Begg is the Director of the Legal Rights Program at the Institute of Public Affairs
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