New ACMA powers to help combat disinformation

The Federal Government will vest the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) with new powers aimed at combatting the spread of misinformation and disinformation, with digital platforms to be held accountable for hosting harmful content.

Under the new arrangement, ACMA will be equipped with new information-gathering and record-keeping powers to oversee digital platform providers, and will hold these online service providers responsible for the accuracy of information and their response to disinformation on their services.

The communications regulator has also been granted powers to register an enforceable industry code, and would move to make it a standard if self-regulation measures prove insufficient. Among the new powers include measures to empower users to report relevant cases of misinformation.

The Government said the new powers would be consistent with the recommendations from AMCA’s report on the adequacy of digital platforms’ disinformation and news quality measures published in June 2021.

The report laid out five recommendations, among which include vesting the regulator with formal information-gathering powers (such as powers to make record-keeping rules) to help oversee digital platforms and incentivise greater transparency in their operations. This would also include the power to request Australia-specific data on the effectiveness of measures to address disinformation and misinformation.

The recommendations also called on the Government to give ACMA reserve powers to register industry codes, enforce industry code compliance, and make standards relating to the activities of digital platforms’ corporations.

According to the report, these powers would also provide a mechanism for further intervention if code administration arrangements prove inadequate.

Finally, the recommendations stressed that, in addition to existing monitoring capabilities, the Government should consider establishing a Misinformation and Disinformation Action Group to support collaboration and information-sharing between digital platforms, government agencies, researchers and non-government organisations (NGOs) on issues relating to disinformation.

The recommendations are also intended to strengthen the voluntary code arrangements undertaken by the industry through the Digital Industry Group Inc (DIGI) and would extend to non-signatories of the DIGI Code.

However, digital platforms will continue to be responsible for the content they host and promote to users.

“In balancing freedom of expression with the need to address online harm, the code and standard-making powers will not apply to professional news and authorised electoral content, nor will the ACMA have a role in determining what is considered truthful,” the statement read.

Instead, the new framework will focus on systemic issues posing a risk of harm on digital platforms, rather than individual pieces of content posted online.