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Australia pledges new powers for combatting online disinformation

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The Australian federal government has pledged new laws for cracking down against the spread of harmful disinformation and misinformation on social media.

Under the proposed laws, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) would gain an expanded set of powers for enforcing voluntary industry codes of practice should platforms’ actions prove inadequate.

“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,” Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said.

The announcement of these laws come a year after large digital platforms, including Facebook, Google, TikTok, and Twitter, among others launched a voluntary code of practice for addressing misinformation online. Since the voluntary code’s launch, the federal government has repeatedly criticised the efforts of social media platforms to address misinformation and disinformation. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison last year criticised tech giants for the conduct that occurs on their platforms, stating that social media platforms like Facebook have become a “coward’s palace” for trolls. 

Beyond new powers for scrutinising the voluntary code, the laws also look to give ACMA new information-gathering powers to improve access to Australian-specific data about measures for addressing disinformation and misinformation.

“Digital platforms must take responsibility for what is on their sites and take action when harmful or misleading content appears,” Communications Minister Paul 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.”

In addition, the federal government wants to establish a misinformation and disinformation action group to bring together key stakeholders across government and the private sector to collaborate and share information on emerging issues and best practice responses.

The laws were created off the back of recommendations made by ACMA, which found most Australians are concerned about, and have experienced, online misinformation.

In terms of when laws will be tabled, Fletcher has said the online disinformation legislation will not be introduced into Parliament ahead of the upcoming federal election. Instead, the communications minister has provided a timeline of sometime in the second half of this year.

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