Online search engines, such as Google Search and Bing, and social media services, such as Facebook and Twitter are the go-to source for news and information for many Australians. A key finding of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s 2019 Digital Platforms Inquiry was that Australians accessing news through digital platforms are potentially at-risk to false, misleading and deceptive information online.
Building on the recommendations of this landmark report, the Australian Government asked all major digital platforms to voluntarily develop an industry code of practice to address disinformation and the quality of online news and information in Australia. The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) was asked to oversee the code’s development, and report back to the government by 30 June 2021 on the adequacy of platforms’ measures and the broader impacts on disinformation.
Tackling disinformation and misinformation is a complex and dynamic task, with the COVID-19 pandemic reinforcing the urgent need to address the ‘infodemic’. While digital platforms bear considerable responsibility for the quality of the information environment on their services, a one-sided regulatory response that places sole responsibility for addressing the problem on platforms is unlikely to be effective. In our view, formal frameworks for widespread collaboration and multi-faceted responses that include but extend well beyond digital platforms are critical to addressing the problem.
In June 2020, the ACMA released a public position paper to help guide the development of this code. In it we suggested that platforms consider an outcomes-based approach, which gives platforms the freedom to implement measures that best suit their individual services and to innovate quickly to counter emerging risks with evidence-based measures. We also recommended a risk-based approach such that higher risk content or behaviour is subject to more-stringent measures. Together these approaches would give the code the flexibility to respond to a diverse industry and dynamic online information environment.
The paper was informed by a review and analysis of subject-matter research, best practice for self-regulation and outcomes-based regulation, and international regulatory approaches (including the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation). It was also informed by meetings with key platforms, industry groups, international regulators and government agencies.
The Australian industry group Digital Industry Group Inc (DIGI) collaborated with its members and other industry participants to draft a code, which was released on 22 February 2021. During the code development process, the ACMA maintained regular and ongoing engagement with both DIGI and industry. This was essential to both help the platforms to better understand the ACMA’s objectives and experience of Code development. It also enabled us to better understand their unique business models and operations and what approaches they were proposing to take to address government and society’s concerns. Ultimately, this collaborative approach contributed to substantial improvements from draft to final code.
To inform our report to government, the ACMA has engaged with a range of stakeholders including government agencies, international regulators, code signatories, and organisations who participated in the code development process. We also commissioned several research projects to inform an environmental assessment of disinformation and misinformation in Australia. The benefits of collaboration, effective engagement, risk and evidenced-based processes have been seen throughout this project to date, and stand the ACMA, digital platforms and other stakeholders in good stead to take this work forward in coming years.