A libertarian think tank has accused the Coalition of abandoning free speech and giving bureaucrats power to determine truth online in a fresh attack against the federal government’s planned social media misinformation laws.
The Morrison government earlier this year unveiled plans to give the media regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, power to create and enforce misinformation codes of practice that could force social media giants to pull down posts deemed harmful or false.
But the Institute of Public Affairs, a free-market organisation typically aligned with the Coalition on many issues, has sharply criticised the proposal, amid a growing global debate about free speech on social media platforms and more broadly, the regulation of tech giants.
“The broad powers to be given to ACMA hand them the keys to encourage platforms to act beyond the commitments of the code and kickstart an era of unprecedented internet censorship,” IPA legal program director Morgan Begg writes in a letter to MPs seen by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
“Elon Musk’s commitment to make Twitter a digital public square for free expression won’t count for much in Australia if [Communications Minister] Paul Fletcher is allowed to censor the internet anyway,” said Begg, who is also critical of Labor’s position on the idea.
Fletcher unveiled the proposal, which will go through consultations before legislation is introduced to Parliament in the second half of the year if the government is returned, following a report by the authority found gaps in how Australia tackles misinformation.
False content online has been in the political spotlight during the pandemic, with bogus claims circulating about treatments for COVID-19 and the efficacy of vaccines. Russian state media has also uncritically reported falsehoods about the war in Ukraine, such as claims from the Kremlin that it had sent in soldiers to fight Nazism.
As well as letting ACMA enforce or create standards if the industry fails to do so, the regulator would be allowed to demand figures about the spread of information on social media companies and participate in a working group with the industry.
A spokesman for the minister said the laws were not about the government determining what is true and would not compromise freedom of speech. “As it currently stands, private multinational companies are making decisions about what is or is not true,” the spokesman said.