Thursday, 12 December 2019 23:29

Government condemned for ‘disgraceful attack’ on free speech over digital platforms inquiry Featured

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The Australian Government has come under fire from the Institute of Public Affairs over its response to the digital platforms inquiry, with the institute condemning the Government for a “disgraceful attack” on free speech.

The Government’s response has also drawn comment from other key players, both within and outside the telecommunications industry, with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) and industry lobby groups Communications Alliance (CA) and Digital Industry Group (DIGI), a lobby group that represents Google, Facebook and Twitter among others, generally welcoming it - with some qualification.

But it was the Institute of Public Affairs which took aim at the Government, expressing both strong criticism and concern.

"That the same Coalition who rightly thought in 2013 that having a public interest media advocate run the ruler over the media was an attack on free speech, now believes Canberra bureaucrats should decide what is and isn't fake news represents a fundamental failure of liberal democratic principles within the Coalition," said Gideon Rozner, Director of Policy at the IPA.

"It is always highly concerning when the government seeks to regulate the public debate. Free and open debate is what confers democratic legitimacy on the elected government, not the other way around."

The Institute - a self-described “free market think tank” - launched its attack on Thursday afternoon following the announcement by the Government earlier in the day that it will provide $26.9 million for the competition watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commisssion (ACCC), to keep an eye on competition issues arising with digital platforms, and that it would set up a special unit for this purpose.

The ACCC has announced that it will work with digital platforms to develop and implement a voluntary code to address any concerns that have been identified.

In its own statement on the digital platform inquiry — as reported by iTWire — the ACCC through chairman Rod Sims, welcomed the Federal Government’s commitment to the adoption of key recommendations from the Digital Platforms Inquiry, saying they address its “main competition and consumer priorities, including concerns about privacy and the use of data”.

In further condemnation of the Government, Rozner said "the idea that there will be a 'voluntary' code to regulate 'fake news' is just terrible”, adding that “bureaucrats in Canberra will determine what is fake and what is not, which will be a disaster”.

"A voluntary code will turn into a mandatory law administered by a future Labor government. This will turn into another Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, a bad law introduced by a Coalition government that public servants can use to go after conservatives," Rozner said.

"Having a government agency like ACMA oversee a code of conduct on ‘fake news’ should terrify us all. It is one or two steps removed from Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth.”

The Communications Alliance, the industry lobby group representing telecommunications consumers, also weighed in to the debate, with CEO, John Stanton commenting that, “It is important that Australia’s privacy framework be fit-for-purpose in the digital age – but equally vital that any overhaul of the Privacy Act be underpinned by a full analysis of the economy-wide impact of proposed reforms; not just the impact on digital platforms”.

“If the review pushed to include communications metadata as part of the definition of ‘personal information’ under privacy laws, for example, it must be demonstrated that this would create an actual benefit for consumers, and that this benefit would outweigh the enormous potential costs involved.”

“The review must also take account of the complexities flowing from the introduction of the Consumer Data Right (CDR) regime to selected industry verticals and of the experience gained from the implementation of the European Union General Data Protection Regulation.”

“We are also pleased to see that the Government has resisted the ACCC’s calls for immediate reform to the Australian Consumer Law and a mandatory take-down code to assist copyright enforcement, and instead has committed to wider, more contextualised consultation on these matters of economy-wide importance.”

The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, said it was pleased to see the Government’s “resposne and implementation roadmap for the Digital Platforms inquiry has accepted its recommendation on “running a pilot external dispute resolution mechanism for consumers, businesses and digital platforms”.

TIO board chair Professor Michael Lavarch said, “Ensuring digital platform users have access to a single complaint framework accommodating the converging communications landscape is required and appropriate”.

“The digital platform landscape is complex and the appropriate regulatory and legislative reform will take time to settle. A Digital Platforms Ombudsman pilot with a clear remit to support users already experiencing detriment is a step that can be taken while the broader issues continue to be assessed.”

Ombudsman Judi Jones said, “We will continue working closely with the Department of Communications and the Arts, regulators, industry and consumer stakeholders on the development of the pilot external dispute resolution scheme.”

“While our priority remains the delivery of efficient and effective external dispute resolution services for phone and internet consumers and providers, this work will complement our existing role in the sector."

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Peter Dinham

Peter Dinham - retired in 2020. He is a veteran journalist and corporate communications consultant. He has worked as a journalist in all forms of media – newspapers/magazines, radio, television, press agency and now, online – including with the Canberra Times, The Examiner (Tasmania), the ABC and AAP-Reuters. As a freelance journalist he also had articles published in Australian and overseas magazines. He worked in the corporate communications/public relations sector, in-house with an airline, and as a senior executive in Australia of the world’s largest communications consultancy, Burson-Marsteller. He also ran his own communications consultancy and was a co-founder in Australia of the global photographic agency, the Image Bank (now Getty Images).

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