Monday, 11 September 2023
Private Members' Business
Freedom of Speech
At the heart of this motion, really, is a conversation about our democracy and, of course, the need to balance the freedom of expression with preserving and protecting our precious democracy. It is really important to note that democracy is precious in our world, and we've seen too many jurisdictions where people have taken for granted the fact that there is a stable democracy. Unfortunately, we've seen too many examples of places where misinformation and disinformation have undermined the institutions that we really should be protecting in our parliaments and our governments. We should also be protecting the right for people to freely exercise their expression and their right to make decisions about really important things like who will govern them.
We know misinformation and disinformation threaten the safety and wellbeing of Australians. We see, with online platforms, that this misinformation and disinformation are spread at speed and scale, and the impact of these harmful campaigns are felt offline too. Left unchecked, our democracy, society and economy are at risk—and I don't think that's overstating things at all. We know that, according to the Australian Communications and Media Authority, most Australians are concerned about, and have experienced, online misinformation. I have certainly encountered this, as I am sure other people in this place have too. We know that disinformation campaigns have the potential to undermine our national security and the integrity of our democracy.
In August 2023, a bipartisan final report of the Senate Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media was tabled. On the risk posed to Australia's democracy by foreign interference through social media, it said:
… targeted online disinformation campaigns that leverage social media platforms to skew public debate, undermine trust in our democratic institutions, and establish narratives that favour the interests of authoritarian states.
The fact is that social media and digital platforms—often private, overseas based companies—already do take down misinformation and disinformation content at scale every day. Some, but not all, platforms have signed up to a voluntary, self-regulatory code of practice that was developed by industry to respond to the threat of misinformation and disinformation.
This exposure draft, which has been referred to through the debate tonight, builds upon this work. It builds upon industry's self-regulatory code of practice, as well as key recommendations made by the ACCC, in its 2019 Digital Platforms Inquiry, and ACMA, in its June 2021 report to government on the adequacy of platforms' disinformation and news quality measures. This bill empowers the Australian regulator to apply greater transparency from big tech, to encourage compliance with industry codes and to require systemic improvements by industry when necessary, such as in relation to complaints handling processes.
This bill does not empower ACMA to take down individual pieces of content. Digital platforms will continue to be responsible for the content on their platforms.
I find it truly remarkable, and of course ironic, that in a debate on misinformation and disinformation we've heard so much of both of those things from those opposite this evening. What our government is trying to do here is balance freedom of expression with the need to protect democracy, and I would have thought that's something that everyone in this place could agree is a good thing to do. Unfortunately, however, those opposite are taking this issue and cynically using it to score cheap political points by exploiting people's fears. They're all over the shop on this issue. Where we would have hoped they'd work constructively on this issue to address seriously harmful misinformation and disinformation that threatens Australians and our democracy, we see what we're seeing tonight, which is a lot of misinformation pedalled despite the fact that at the last federal election the coalition went to the election saying they would introduce a bill to empower ACMA to address misinformation and disinformation. So it's really important we call this cynical attempt out for what it is, which is just an attempt to score cheap political points at the expense of our democracy.