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Communications minister leaves door open to tougher action to reduce spread on social media as critic of new code calls it ‘pointless’

Last modified on Mon 22 Feb 2021 03.01 GMT
The Australian government has not ruled out taking tougher action against social media giants like Facebook and Twitter if a new industry-developed code fails to limit the spread of misinformation and disinformation on their platforms.
The new code of practice, developed by industry organisation Digi and released on Monday, has been adopted by Twitter, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Redbubble and TikTok.

Under the new code, signatories will be required to develop processes for identifying, reviewing and removing misinformation and disinformation on their platforms. Misinformation is defined as false information regardless of the intent of the person sharing it, while disinformation is spread with the deliberate intent to deceive, often coming from state actors.
The code will require participants to remove misinformation and disinformation, suspend accounts, label misleading content, demonetise misinformation, have a process for reviewing decisions made around misinformation and disinformation and deprioritise content in algorithms over news sources with an editorial code.
How the code will work in practice remains to be seen. Companies that have signed up to it will be required to publish annual reports on how they are meeting the objectives of the code, with the first reports on its effectiveness due in May.
“In this code, we’ve worked to get the balance right with what we think people expect when communicating over the internet,” Digi’s managing director, Sunita Bose, said in a statement. “Companies are committing to robust safeguards against harmful misinformation and disinformation that also protect privacy, freedom of expression and political communication.”
Reset Australia, an organisation lobbying for regulation of the tech giants, called the code “shameless and pointless” and called for an independent public regulator to be set up instead.
“This limp, toothless, opt-in code of practice is both pointless and shameless,” Reset Australia’s executive director, Chris Cooper, said. “It does nothing but reinforce the arrogance of giants like Facebook.
“Any voluntary, opt-in code is inherently untrustworthy because we know it’s not in the business interests of these platforms to take real action on misinformation.
“The laughable thing about this code is that even if platforms choose to opt in, they can choose which provisions they have to follow. And then if it starts hurting their bottom line, all the have to do is pull out.
“This is a regulatory regime that would be laughed out of town if suggested by any other major industry.”
Asked whether any of the companies that had signed on to the code had changed any of their policies as a result, Bose told Guardian Australia the companies had already been changing their policies, particularly in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Signing on to this disinformation code means they are committed to such work and the public will have more visibility on it, as they each release annual transparency reports,” she said.
The release of the code follows Facebook’s decision to ban Australian news from its platform in response to proposed laws to make the tech giant pay for content.
The requirement to prioritise news sources over misinformation would apply only to platforms offering news, Bose said.
“For platforms that do offer news, the code provides for a range of measures that can assist their users make more informed choices of digital content,” she said. “For example, they can support digital literacy initiatives and the work of fact-checking organisations.”
If a news article is being shared as disinformation, the code would allow platforms to take action against it by fact-checking or removing it.
The code was developed by Digi in response to the Australian competition watchdog’s inquiry into digital platforms in 2019. A draft version of the code, released last year, only covered disinformation but has since been expanded to cover misinformation following submissions.
The communications minister, Paul Fletcher, said the government would see how the code worked in practice, and did not rule out further action.
“The Morrison government will be watching carefully to see whether this voluntary code is effective in providing safeguards against the serious harms that arise from the spread of disinformation and misinformation on digital platforms,” he said.
“I look forward to receiving Acma’s [the Australian Communication and Media Authority’s] feedback, which will guide us on whether further action is needed,” Fletcher said.
The Acma chair, Nerida O’Loughlin, encouraged companies signing up to sign up to all the objectives of the code and go further.
“We encourage all platforms to sign up to the full suite of objectives included in the code and even go beyond them to deal with the significant harms caused by mis- and disinformation,” she said.