September 21, 2023
Australia's e-Safety Commissioner and former Twitter employee Julie Inman Grant appears next to a kangaroo overlaying a backdrop of Twitter CEO Elon Musk's Twitter.

Australia's e-Safety Commissioner and former Twitter employee Julie Inman Grant appears next to a kangaroo overlaying a backdrop of Twitter CEO Elon Musk's Twitter.

Australia’s Communications Minister Michelle Rowland is introducing draft legislation that will impose potentially billion dollar fines on social media companies if they refuse to address misinformation on their platforms.

The legislation, which Rowland hopes to introduce to Parliament after public comment ends in August, states that a digital platform would be liable for a penalty of up to five percent of their yearly turnover for disseminating misinformation or disinformation.

The Communications Legislation Amendment Combatting Misinformation and Disinformation Bill 2023 defines misinformation as “content that contains information that is false, misleading, deceptive” and “is reasonably likely to cause or contribute to serious harm.” It defines disinformation as the same as misinformation, with the caveat that “the person disseminating, or causing the disseminating of, the content intends that the content deceive another person.”

In the draft’s release Rowland assured citizens that the bill “does not empower the ACMA to determine what is true or false or to remove individual content or posts.” However, the bill lays out a number of factors the government considers when determining if a piece of content is “reasonably likely to cause or contribute to serious harm.” These elements include: who authored the information, the purpose of the dissemination, the context surrounding the publication, the potential reach of the content and a blanket “any other matter” stipulation.

While the bill lays out a lengthy list of factors, the government has already taken action showing what it is they perceive as harmful. Having already pressured Twitter to censor tweets suggesting transgender women shouldn’t breastfeed children, the country’s e-Safety Commissioner intensified the pressure on Wednesday when she issued Twitter an ultimatum.

Commissioner Julie Inman Grant, a former Twitter employee, gave Elon Musk 28 days to address hate speech on the platform or face a fine of up to $700,000 AUD ($476,000 USD) for every day afterwards. In an online letter Grant accused Twitter of “failing to confront the dark reality that the platform is increasingly being used as a vehicle for disseminating online hate and abuse.” 

Grant issued an official legal notice to Twitter, saying “It’s for these reasons that, today, I sent a legal notice to Twitter under Australia’s Online Safety Act, requiring answers about what it is actually doing to prevent online hate from spreading on its service.”

Amongst the list of her concerns were Musk-era Twitter’s dramatic reduction of its workforce, its reinstatement of 62,000 suspended accounts and the cessation of what she calls “all local public policy representation.” This representation is essential for relaying local context and culture back to HQ in San Francisco – or they run the risk that “reports of targeted abuse will increasingly fall through the cracks,” according to Grant. 

For Musk’s Twitter, and for all media platforms, the issue highlights a murky transnational information highway becoming exponentially more complex to navigate. Musk, who calls himself a “free speech absolutist,” has sustained backlash for granting censorship requests from world powers like India and Turkey. But the South African tech pioneer has posited that, pursuant to the laws in those countries he has no choice but to comply. 

For Australia the government’s instinct to stifle certain speech plays out as tensions heat up with their Pacific neighbor China and an upcoming referendum to historically recognize the indigenous population invokes rancor online. Australian writer Caitlin Johnstone points out, a bolstering of the government’s censorship capacity only serves the interests of the powerful. She writes: “When the government involves itself in the regulation of speech, it is necessarily incentivized to regulate speech in a way that benefits itself and its allies.”

Rowland’s bill will be open for public comment from Australian citizens until August 6th. Residents can make their voice heard here

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