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‘Quite strange’ for Coalition to reject disinformation crackdown it originally proposed, Albanese says

Anthony Albanese has said it is “quite strange” the opposition has turned on Labor’s social media disinformation crackdown, first proposed by the Coalition, as he stares down unrest from the religious right about the bill.

Albanese defended the purpose of the bill at a press conference in Melbourne, explaining it addresses concerns of media organisations about misinformation such as promoting the injection of bleach as a Covid cure on social media.

The draft bill would allow the Australian Communications and Media Authority to require social media companies to toughen their policies on “content [that] is false, misleading or deceptive, and where the provision of that content on the service is reasonably likely to cause or contribute to serious harm”.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) has warned that it is “concerned that the bill could be used to portray the church’s communication of its teachings as a form of public misinformation”.

That comes after warnings from the Australian Christian Lobby that the proposal will “cancel Christian posts online” including where churches “express an alternate view to the prevailing woke culture on gender and sexuality and for those who want to speak out against abortion”.

The ACBC noted that many religious services are delivered online, and argued that “communications of religious belief made in good faith, that the communicator genuinely considers to be consistent with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of that religion, should not be included in the scope of the bill”.

“This alteration will prevent digital platforms from being obliged to censor or label communications of religious belief online as disinformation or misinformation.”

The communications department has received more than 23,000 responses to consultation on the bill, including 3,000 submissions. Many of the responses are critical, in part driven by campaigns including by One Nation and the former Nationals MP George Christensen against the bill.

In June 2021 the Acma asked the Morrison government for “reserve powers” to force social media to toughen their misinformation rules, which the Coalition committed to introduce ahead of the 2022 election.

On Monday the shadow communications minister, David Coleman, said the bill is a “capital-D disaster for the government because they’ve managed to unite pretty much all parts of the spectrum in Australia”.

“More leftwing groups, more conservative groups, the Human Rights Commission, like pretty much everyone is against this,” Coleman told 2GB Radio.

On Tuesday Albanese responded to the concerns by noting: “[We] don’t even have a bill, what we have is a consultation process.

“[This] arose from the former Coalition government, and … every mainstream media organisation, whether it’s News Corp or Nine News or other media organisations, [has] expressed concern for some period of time about some of the misinformation which is out there on the internet.

“We saw that during Covid – it probably wasn’t a good idea to have stuff out there about … bleach being injected and about a whole range of things.

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“So this is quite strange that the Coalition, which initiated this process, are now once again [against it] … Our country cannot advance based upon fear.”

A submission from the University of Technology Sydney’s Centre for Media Transition argued that “some of the commentary around the impact of the draft bill on freedom of speech is overblown” but accepted there was legitimate concern about the enlarged role for Acma.

“We think the design of the draft bill largely avoids this problem as it is mostly directed at giving the Acma a role in assessing ‘measures’ that platforms have implemented in order to address mis- and disinformation,” it said, noting that “Acma is not expected to make decisions on specific instances of mis- and dis-information”.

The centre proposed concerns could be addressed by “limiting Acma’s information gathering powers to ‘measures implemented to prevent or respond’ to mis- and disinformation … thereby removing any possibility that Acma could indirectly influence decisions on which forms of content comprise mis- and disinformation”.

In its submission, the Law Council said that mis- and disinformation “can result in significant harms to the enjoyment of human rights in particular contexts” but it required a “cautious regulatory response”.

It said the bill “is overly broad, uncertain, and may have serious unintended consequences”.

Angela Flannery, the deputy chair of the Law Council’s media and communications law committee, said many critics of the bill fail to make the “distinction between freedom of speech and the right to have voices amplified by platforms”.

“What the government is trying to do is get more transparency about what platforms are doing to combat mis- and disinformation – not trying to give Acma powers to define what is and isn’t [in those categories].”

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