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Meta Pushes Back On Australia’s Plan To Criminalize Harmful “Disinformation”

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In response to the recent legislation by the Australian federal government aimed at curbing online “disinformation,” Meta, the parent organization of Facebook and Instagram, has voiced apprehension. It alleges that these rules could inadvertently allow the government to stifle speech. (That’s Facebook’s job of course.)

The legislation, announced a month ago, is poised to equip the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) with substantial regulatory powers. This includes the possible implementation of a state-supervised universal standard to combat disinformation and misinformation. Critics, however, liken it to an Orwellian “Ministry of Truth,” as it grants ACMA the authority to mandate the removal of certain content or posts from social media platforms.

In a Senate hearing on foreign interference through social media, Josh Machin, Meta’s head of public policy in Australia, proposed that while the company is amenable to partaking in a voluntary industry code, it harbors apprehensions about a compulsory state-led program. Meta executives foresee the potential for misuse of such powers, or a chilling effect on valid political speech online.

Machin said that the law, “empowers the ACMA to, for example, develop binding standards around misinformation and disinformation with some very substantial civil penalties and also criminal penalties for individuals who are involved….We can see some potential for that power to be abused, or for it to be used in a way that inadvertently chills free and legitimate political expression online. We’re thinking through some constructive suggestions.”

Notably, social media corporations risk hefty fines – $2.75 million or 2% of global turnover, whichever is larger – if they fail repeatedly to eliminate disinformation and misinformation. The proposed legislation, which is currently open for public comments, also contemplates significant civil penalties and criminal sanctions for individuals engaged in disseminating disinformation.

The draft legislation outlines misinformation as unintentionally “false, misleading or deceptive” content that could potentially cause serious harm, while disinformation is described as intentionally false material.

Traditional media outlets, however, would be exempt from these regulations.

Such legislation could have constrained Australians from discussing contentious theories, such as the origin of the coronavirus from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, as per committee chair Paterson, who expressed his concerns during the hearings.

When launching the new rules, Communications Minister Michelle Rowland said that they sought to “strike the right balance between protection from harmful mis- and disinformation online and freedom of speech.” Rowland added that such disinformation stirs division, erodes trust, and potentially endangers public health and safety.

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