Misinformation Laws Will Not Stop The Next Violent Attack, But Will Shield Politicians From Tough Questions

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4 June 2024
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In this article, Director of Research Morgan Begg contextualises and disseminates the IPA’s research on misinformation laws and how it affects the political freedom of mainstream Australians.

Australia’s eSafety Commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, is pushing ahead with her frivolous lawsuit against social media platform, despite a slap down by the Federal Court. This underscores the hostility of Australia’s political class to our online freedoms.

Justice Geoffrey Kennett denied the eSafety Commissioner’s application to extend an injunction forcing X (Twitter) to take down footage of the April 2024 knife attack of Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel in his church in Sydney.

At present, the Online Safety Act 2021 requires a removal notice which only instructs a platform to take ‘reasonable steps’ to comply with the notice. Justice Kennett ruled that the Commissioner’s request that X take down the content worldwide so that no Australian could see the 11-second video of the stabbing could not pass the ‘reasonable steps’ test.

This case rests on the subjective powers of the eSafety Commissioner, who only needs to be ‘satisfied’ in her own mind that content meeting the definition of ‘Class 1 material’ enables her to issue a removal notice.

Class 1 material is content that would be likely to be classified as restricted content by the Australian Classification Board, but no such rating needs to be made for the Commissioner to exercise her broad and arbitrary content removal powers.

The decision was only one step before the dispute goes to a final hearing in July, but the fact the federal government’s eSafety Commissioner would make such a drastic request over a video, that even the court acknowledges, shows very little in terms of graphic content, highlights public concern regarding a decline in online freedoms.

Even the Commissioner’s lawyer, government solicitor Tim Begbie KC, claimed in court that: ‘This is not a free speech policy debate, this is about … the Online Safety Act.’

The case also shines a spotlight on the risk that the federal government’s proposed misinformation laws could potentially be abused for political purposes.

The video in dispute in the case against X has been used, in my opinion, as a vehicle for the federal government to push for powers to compel social media companies to enforce rules of misinformation and disinformation on their platforms.

In the aftermath of the attack, Prime Minister Albanese made some concerning comments, saying, ‘By and large, people responded appropriately to the eSafety Commissioner. X chose not to … Australians want misinformation and disinformation to stop. This isn’t about freedom of expression.’

The Communications Minister Michelle Rowland added to this, a week after the church stabbing, during an interview on ABC radio, saying of misinformation, ‘…as you’ve seen in the last week, this is causing real-world harm.’

In an important sense, the Prime Minister was right – the stabbing video is all about misinformation. Not because the video has anything to do with the spreading of falsehoods – the images captured are all too real – but rather that content such as the stabbing video would be caught up in the scope of the proposed misinformation laws.

Statements from the government’s ministers expose the lie at the heart of the claims about the need for misinformation laws – that it would empower a government agency to somehow objectively divine the truth in online content.

In reality, as the federal government has conceded, the misinformation laws are not about falsehoods but about the content that it would prefer not spread online.

The draft misinformation laws, that are set to be introduced and legislated this year, outline a variety of types of harms that fall within the scope of misinformation and disinformation, including ‘hatred against a group’, ‘disruption of public order’, and even more ambiguous types of harms such as ‘harm to the health of Australians’ and ‘harm to the Australian environment’.

On this occasion, a video of an alleged Islamic terrorist attack against a Christian priest threatened to bring about an uncomfortable debate about social cohesion, and the first reaction of the federal government was to censor. Had the proposed misinformation laws been in place in April, it is difficult to see how they would not have been used to reinforce the efforts to remove the video.

The Federal Court’s decision highlights the government’s fixation with censorship. This in turn reinforces the worst concerns held by the community that the proposed misinformation laws will empower unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats to determine and enforce the official ‘truth’ on the internet.

Misinformation laws will not stop the next violent attack on a bishop, but it would help stop those in power from having a debate and answering the tough questions it does not want to.

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