Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has signaled the federal government’s support for more government regulation of the internet to crackdown on “fake news” and to ensure web users do not experience “offensive or harmful content”.
This was the topic of Fifield’s address to the right wing Sydney Institute on Monday night which was titled “The internet – not an ungoverned space”. Fifield declared that the internet is no longer seen “as a libertarian ‘free-for-all’” and that “we are at a turning point. There is global recognition that the internet cannot be that other place where community standards and the rule of law do not apply”.
Despite the Liberals claiming to be for smaller government, less regulation and Fifield from the free market faction of the party he believed that “there’s a clear role for the Government and industry to work together to ensure the interests of our community are protected, supported and promoted in the online environment, just as they are elsewhere”.
Fifield later in his speech turned to attacking so called “fake news” a term which came to prominence in the 2016 Presidential election to describe critical stories about Hillary Clinton designed to help Donald Trump. Fifield stated that social media “can be used by state and private actors to intentionally cause public harm” in the form of fake news.
He went on to praising social media companies for steps they were taking to clean up their platforms “The major platforms know they have a role to play in addressing fake news” and how they were implementing their own news verification arrangements “They are also beginning to educate consumers and are working with independent third-parties to fact-check content that has been flagged as potentially misleading or false”.
Fifield then explained the federal government would decide on what further internet regulations it would legislate when it received an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) draft report of its inquiry into Digital Platforms. The federal government commissioned this inquiry when it passed its media reforms last year. The inquiry considers the impact of digital platforms on competition, advertising, news and journalistic content, and the implications for consumers, including privacy.
In its 73 submissions issues raised were “digital platforms are monetising content created by media organisations without contributing to the cost of content creation”, that “Advertising revenue is shifting from traditional media to digital platforms, eroding the business model of traditional media organisations” and that social media platforms were creating news “echo chambers” and “filter bubbles”.
Fifield finished his speech by outlining the principles the federal government would take when considering the recommendations in the report, the first being responsibility: “Individuals need to be responsible, and accountable, for their behaviour online”, that “businesses must ensure that their services are not open to manipulation and harmful behaviour” and “government has a responsibility to inform and educate, and provide the right incentives, and penalties, where content and behaviour doesn’t meet standards of decency”.
The other principles were respect, fostering a level-playing field, trust and security. He believed that people should be able to “trust their online news sources” and “when these things don’t happen, we will look at the full range of policy, regulatory and other options available to us”.
While fake news and people falling for fake news is a real problem governments deciding what is fake news and encouraging social media companies to crack down on what they consider fake news is a ripe recipe for censorship. We have seen Alex Jones’ Infowars deleted from all major social media platforms for allegedly spreading fake news and Gavin McInnes and the Proud Boys kicked off Twitter.
Also governments and social media companies should not be seeking to protect the reach and revenue of traditional corporate media as the reason people are switching to alternative news-sites is because mainstream media has been exposed as trying to mislead their consumers and lacking in diversity of political opinion.
The Gillard Labor Government with its Finkelstein Media Inquiry proposed having all online publications needing a license to operate and could be taken to a News Media Council if the government didn’t like what it was publishing. The fact that a Liberal Government is now considering deciding who is qualified to share their news on social media is just as alarming