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The Censors Down Under: The ACMA Gambit on Misinformation and Disinformation

In January 2010, the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, doing what she does best, grasped a platitude and ran with it in launching, of all things, an institution called the Newseum. “Information freedom,” she declared, “supports the peace and security that provide a foundation for global progress.”

The same figure has encouraged the prosecution of such information spear carriers as Julian Assange, who dared give the game away by publishing, among other things, documents from the State Department and emails from Clinton’s own presidential campaign in 2016 that cast her in a rather dim light. Information freedom is only to be lauded when it favours your side.

Who regulates, let alone should regulate, information disseminated across the Internet remains a critical question. Gone is the frontier utopianism of an open, untampered information environment, where bright and optimistic netizens could gather, digitally speaking, in the digital hall, the agora, the square, to debate, to ponder, to dispute every topic there was. Perhaps it never existed, but for a time, it was pleasant to even imagine it did.

The shift towards information control was bound to happen and was always going to be encouraged by the greatest censors of all: governments. Governments untrusting of the posting policies and tendencies of social media users and their facilitators have been, for some years, trying to rein in published content in a number of countries. Cyber-pessimism has replaced the cyber-utopians. “Social media,” remarked science writer Annalee Newitz in 2019, “has poisoned the way we communicate with each other and undermined the democratic process.” The emergence of the terribly named “fake news” phenomenon adds to such efforts, all the more ironic given the fact that government sources are often its progenitors.

To make things even murkier, the social media behemoths have also taken liberties on what content they will permit on their forums, using their selective algorithms to disseminate information at speed even as they prevent other forms of it from reaching wider audiences. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, heeding the call of the very screams and bellows of their own creation, thought it appropriate to exclude or limit various users in favour of selected causes and more sanitised usage. In some jurisdictions, they have become the surrogates of government policy under threat: remove any offending material, or else.

Currently under review in Australia is another distinctly nasty example of such a tendency. The Communications Legislation Amendment (Combating Misinformation and Disinformation) Bill 2023 is a proposed instrument that risks enshrining censorship by stealth. Its exposure draft is receiving scrutiny from public submissions till August. Submissions are sought “on the proposed laws to hold digital platform services to account and create transparency around their efforts in responding to misinformation and disinformation in Australia.”

The Bill is a clumsily drafted, laboriously constructed document. It is outrageously open-ended on definitions and a condescending swipe to the intelligence of the broader citizenry. It defines misinformation as “online content that is false, misleading or deceptive, that is shared or created without an intent to deceive but can cause and contribute to serious harm.” Disinformation is regarded as “misinformation that is intentionally disseminated with the intent to deceive or cause serious harm.”

The bill, should it become law, will empower the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to monitor and regulate material it designates as “harmful online misinformation and disinformation.” The Big Tech fraternity will be required to impose codes of conduct to enforce the interpretations made by the ACMA, with the regulator even going so far as proposing to “create and enforce an industry standard”. Those in breach will be liable for up to A$7.8 million or 5% of global turnover for corporations.

What, then, is harm? Examples are provided in the Guidance Note to the Bill. These include hatred targeting a group based on ethnicity, nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion or physical or mental disability. It can also include disruption to public order or society, the old grievance the State has when protestors dare differ in their opinions and do the foolish thing by expressing them. (The example provided here is the mind of the typical paranoid government official: “Misinformation that encouraged or caused people to vandalise critical communications infrastructure.”)

John Steenhoff of the Human Rights Law Alliance has identified, correctly, the essential, dangerous consequence of the proposed instrument. It will grant the ACMA “a mechanism what counts as acceptable communication and what counts as misinformation and disinformation. This potentially gives the state the ability to control the availability of information for everyday Australians, granting it power beyond anything that a government should have in a free and democratic society.”

Interventions in such information ecosystems are risky matters, certainly for states purporting to be liberal democratic and supposedly happy with debate. A focus on firm, robust debate, one that drives out poor, absurd ideas in favour of richer and more profound ones, should be the order of the day. But we are being told that the quality of debate, and the strength of ideas, can no longer be sustained as an independent ecosystem. Your information source is to be curated for your own benefit, because the government class says it’s so. What you receive and how you receive, is to be controlled paternalistically.

The ACMA is wading into treacherous waters. The conservatives in opposition are worried, with Shadow Communications Minister David Coleman describing the draft as “a very bad bill” giving the ACMA “extraordinary powers. It would lead to digital companies self-censoring the legitimately held views of Australians to avoid the risk of massive fines.” Not that the conservative coalition has any credibility in this field. Under the previous governments, a relentless campaign was waged against the publication of national security information. An enlightened populace is the last thing these characters, and their colleagues, want.


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  1. Anthony Judge

    Very pertinent commentary. Whilst deprecating what clearly needs to be deprecated, my concern is with the avoidance of discussion of various highly sensitive grey areas. Most obvious is the manner in which a political party in power claims one truth, whilst the opposition claims it to be misinformation or distinformation. But of course politics is immune to the envisaged legislation. Then there are the claims made in advertising. What percentage of advertising can be held to be misinformation or disinformation? Obvious examples are commodities and service promoted as free — until you sign up, or read the small print. However that too is immune, due to legislation relating to “puffery” — a wonderful term by which anyone can claim their product to be “the best”, and tested by experts to be so. (I believe that Iceland prohibits such claims). Then there are the highly controversial claims made by religions. How are claims and guarantees by authorities regarding the salvatory capacity of vaccines to be compared with “Jesus saves”? Is the latter misleading? Is the former? (

  2. Andrew Smith

    Some may disagree with this:

    ‘information spear carriers as Julian Assange, who dared give the game away by publishing, among other things, documents from the State Department and emails from Clinton’s own presidential campaign in 2016 that cast her in a rather dim light.’

    Speaking of censors, misinformation and disinformation, locally we have media and journalism that is incapable of informing beyond headlines and talking points, why?

    Assange is treated like a left wing freedom of speech hero (supported by too many pro-Russian ‘tankies’), via Wikileaks, but had gone off piste, locally many persist with promoting myths and avoiding inconvenient facts, to protect Assange’s reputation, but ignore deeper reporting and journalism from the US about a series of events and timelines (simply does not fit glib Australian media models?).

    From David Corn in (left wing) Mother Jones ‘Denounce Julian Assange. Don’t Extradite Him. The prosecution of the conniving WikiLeaks founder poses a threat to American journalism….

    ….the Trump administration further indicted Assange (2019) under the Espionage Act for having publicly posted the material WikiLeaks received from Manning…. But one PR problem with the case is that Assange is a highly unsympathetic character, for he is partly responsible for the damage done by Donald Trump during his presidency….In 2016, he collaborated with the Russian attack on the US election to help Trump win….Russian intelligence teams hacked Democratic targets, they passed the stolen emails and documents to WikiLeaks, which then publicly disseminated the material.

    The Senate report notes that Assange’s group “timed its document releases for maximum political impact.” That is, WikiLeaks wasn’t acting in a noble information-sharing manner. It sought to weaponize the information pilfered by Vladimir Putin’s operatives to cause harm to candidate Hillary Clinton, whom Assange and WikiLeaks had disparaged as a “sadistic sociopath” and a threat to the world. (“We believe it would be much better for [the] GOP to win,” WikiLeaks had tweeted.)….

    ….In disseminating the stolen information, WikiLeaks behaved more as a political hit squad than a media organization. For example, when the Washington Post on October 7, 2016, published the Access Hollywood video showing Trump bragging about grabbing women “by the pussy,” half an hour later WikiLeaks began releasing emails Russian hackers had swiped from John Podesta, the chair of Hillary Clinton’s campaign…

    ….Assange and WikiLeaks undertook efforts to obscure the source of the stolen emails, including through false narratives. Assange’s use of such disinformation suggests Assange possibly knew of and sought to hide Russian involvement. One narrative from Assange involved a conspiracy theory that Seth Rich, a DNC staffer killed in a botched robbery, was the source of the DNC email and had been murdered in response. On August 9 [2016], Assange gave an interview on Dutch television implying that Rich was the source of the DNC emails, and that day WikiLeaks announced that it would be issuing a reward for information about Rich’s murder’

    Denounce Julian Assange. Don’t Extradite Him.

    The latter resulted in Rich’s family being awarded significant but confidential damages for defamation by Fox News, i.e. right wing news organisation supporting and promoting Assange’s &/or Wikileaks’ conspiracy; did they think the Trump campaign would return a favour?

  3. Barry

    Andrew S, I’m not sure of the point you are trying to make, but the powers ACMA will get from the new Misinformation-Disinformation Bill will ensure all future whistleblowers end up in the same boat as Julian Assagne, but with zero recourse to a legal process.
    The amendments proposed to the Bill are draconian.
    If it passes while Labor is in power, Labor will be in power forever. If Labor manages to somehow stuff up the passage of the Bill on their watch and subsequently lose the next election, then the LNP will take over control of society with all the same powers. The LNP will wield the power to decide ‘truth’, forever.
    What kind of idiotic system do people wish to live under forever? Labor with its covert love of the CCP or the LNP with its overt love of one of the greatest terrorist empires on the planet, the USA-CIA duopoly?
    What is galling about the Bill is who is exempted – gov officials AND the lie-as-you-go lamestream media who could not care less about freedom. The media will never mention the dangers inherent in this Bill. They want a one-world view, the view of themselves & their minders.
    Anthony J, indeed. Given the role of the media these last 3.5 years, using every trick to keep the public between the guardrails of the ‘official narrative’, calling every independent thinker a ‘conspiracy theorist’ only to have most of the ‘theories’ now proven fact, why would any person trust the MSM for a nano-second?
    The big revelation for me happened early this year when I heard the USA FDA tried to hide the clinical trial results from a group of doctors seeking data via a FOI request. The FDA wanted to hide the Pfizer data for 75 years. Without access to that data, no doctor on the planet could have given informed consent because they lacked relevant facts.
    And this Bill wants to exempt government authorities and media from scrutiny.
    You can’t make this rubbish up, not unless one is a scheming sociopath who graduated from say a global young leaders program, that is.

  4. Clakka

    A crazy, ill-thought-through bill.

    Until there’s honesty, transparency and a bill for truth in political advertising and campaigning, and repeal of the processes of parliamentary privilege, and complete ban on corporations and others acquiring, accumulating and selling or disseminating private information on citizens, I wouldn’t even consider such a bill as proposed.

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