Government Probed on Why ‘Hidden’ Power to Investigate Misinformation Not Revealed Earlier

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The Australian government is looking to implement new laws to regulate ’misinformation and disinformation’ in the country.

Government officials have faced questions about the extent of power Australia’s communications minister will have to investigate misinformation and disinformation.

During a Senate Estimates hearing on Feb. 13, Liberal Senator Sarah Henderson raised concerns about a letter from federal Communications Minister Michelle Rowland to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on June 1, 2023.

The letter said the draft of the impending Misinformation Bill would give the presiding minister the power to direct the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to conduct investigations into misinformation and disinformation.

Under the bill, the ACMA would be granted enhanced powers to regulate what it deems to be misinformation and disinformation, including compelling social media platforms to maintain extensive records of content posted online, creating and enforcing an industry standard and a code of practice concerning misinformation and disinformation.

While the bill did not explicitly provide any new power to the communications minister, Ms. Henderson said the minister could order the ACMA to investigate such matters using powers already granted under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 and the Australian Communications and Media Authority Act 2005.

Ms. Henderson questioned why the Labor government did not reveal this new power when introducing the draft legislation.

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“We haven’t seen the final version that the minister held this power in relation to misinformation because it’s not in the bill,” she said. “This is deeply concerning. Why wasn’t this made transparent?”

“The prime minister promised the Australian people that this government would be a government of transparency, and now we discover that the minister has this reserve power to launch her own investigation into misinformation, including possibly on political grounds.”

Government’s Response

Richard Windeyer, the deputy secretary of the Communications Department, said there was nothing to suggest whether the communications minister might be seeking to exercise this power.

He also rejected the idea that the government was not transparent.

“We’re talking about provisions in the Acts that have been in place for some considerable period of time, so there’s nothing that is not transparent there in terms of the powers that the minister in the communications portfolio has as a general sense under the Broadcasting Services Act or in relation to the Australian Media and Communications Authority,” Mr. Windeyer said.

In addition, the deputy secretary said it would be unusual to put provisions that already exist in other laws into a new bill.

Meanwhile, Samuel Grunhard, the first assistant secretary from the Communications Department, said the Misinformation Bill was intended to just be a new schedule to existing laws, not replace them.

“Generally speaking, it is expected that the Minister for Communications will be able to direct the ACMA to investigate and report on concerns raised by everyday Australians, media organisations or parliamentary committees if necessary,” he said.

Senator Sarah Henderson during her first day in the Senate at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, on Sept. 12, 2019. (Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)
Senator Sarah Henderson during her first day in the Senate at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, on Sept. 12, 2019. (Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

However, Ms. Henderson said it was common for bills to omit such important information.

“It is unusual that there is a whole new section in relation to misinformation and disinformation, [and] this very important matter is silent in the bill.

The Victorian senator then questioned how the reserve power would be implemented by the communications minister in practice.

In response, Mr. Windeyer said the bill was in the draft stage and that the Senate Committee needed to see the final bill to find out the details.

“It’s not something that we are turning our minds to on how the bill, as currently drafted, might operate,” he said.

“We are looking at how we might adjust the bill and for a final piece of legislation that can be introduced into the parliament.”

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