The government’s censorship agenda is out in the open

Written by:
27 December 2023
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In this article, Director of Law and Policy John Storey contextualises and disseminates the IPA’s research on misinformation laws and how it affects the political freedom of mainstream Australians.

The federal government has previously maintained that its proposed misinformation laws would not allow the government to censor the internet. Communications minister Michelle Rowland even declared the government would have ‘no interest and no power [over] what individual users may be posting’. Instead, Rowland said these laws would focus on ‘systemic issues, it’s not about moderating content … there’s no power to remove or request the removal of individual posts’.

This was always a dubious claim. The government’s proposed laws will give the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) the power to investigate and punish social media companies if they do not adequately censor misinformation to their satisfaction. But ACMA can only impose such penalties if it forms a view that certain content is false, and inevitably the views of ACMA would inform the social media platforms on what content they must censor. The tech companies will do the censoring, but with the government pointing a gun at them.

However, the pre-Christmas revelation of an internal letter from Rowland to the Prime Minister strips bare the Minister’s carefully constructed charade that these laws are not about government censoring what mainstream Australians read online.

In the Minister’s letter, she asks the Prime Minister to agree that she:

‘…would have the ability as the Minister to direct the ACMA to commence investigations under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 and generally under the Australian Communications and Media Authority Act 2005.’

Despite promises to the contrary, we now know what we suspected all along: that it will be the government calling the shots on what ACMA investigates, and therefore on what gets censored online.

We should not be surprised. Most censorship laws are a reaction to something a government does not like. In Germany, large arrivals of new migrants invited into the country by former Chancellor Angela Merkel were met with reasonable concern and criticism by some citizens. Merkel’s government promptly introduced hate speech and misinformation laws, the Network Enforcement Act, to try and silence these dissenters in the name of protecting vulnerable groups.

Ireland was up to the same trick in recent weeks. A similar backlash against open border immigration policies prompted the introduction of new and incredibly harsh hate speech laws. Australia’s own move towards online censorship began with the Morrison Coalition government, which first proposed the introduction of such misinformation laws. At the time the former government was unhappy about criticism of its Covid policies, duly labelled it misinformation, and sought the expedience of censorship to silence dissenting views it was uncomfortable with.

The current Labor government has taken up the censorship baton and is running with it eagerly. The government is still smarting from the thumping Voice referendum defeat, a result that Yes23 campaign director Dean Parkin blamed on ‘the single largest misinformation campaign that this country has ever seen’. So, again we have a federal government rushing to censor unfavorable opinions like so many failing governments have done before it.

The letter from Rowland, released under a Freedom of Information request, reveals a disdainful attitude towards free speech. It notes that while public debate in Australia is ‘not as shrill’ as in the United States ‘there is still a risk the proposed powers could be perceived as a form of censorship’. Rowland claims that ‘following the Covid lock-downs, there has been a notable rise in conspiracy theories by Australians’. It would seem that Australians concerned over further attempts by to infringe on their freedoms are nothing more than conspiracy theorists in the eyes of the government.

The letter confirms so-called ‘fact-checkers’ will play a prominent role under the new censorship regime. These self-appointed arbiters of truth already play an insidious role in silencing right-of-centre viewpoints. In a research report by the Institute of Public Affairs, it was revealed that during the Voice referendum campaign, the three main Australian fact-checking organisations conducted 187 fact-checking investigations. Fully 170, or 91 per cent, of these were targeted against the No case, and 169 of these, or over 99 per cent, were deemed to be ‘false’. These viewpoints were then censored from the internet.

These ‘fact-checkers’ will be the foot soldiers in the federal government’s censorship arrangements. Minister Rowland’s letter states that ACMA has recommended extending its information gathering powers to ‘fact checkers and third-party platform contractors to monitor compliance with misinformation codes’. These investigation powers include draconian rules that can compel private citizens to appear before tribunals where there is no right to remain silent or privilege against self-incrimination. According to the Minister ‘the draft Bill would give effect to this suggested change’.

Calling something ‘Orwellian’ is often a cliché, but when assessing a law that will grant government-sanctioned ‘fact-checkers’ the right to investigate people for what they have said online and require the censorship of those viewpoints, there really is no better way to describe it.

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