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Rewrite Of Controversial Bill To Ensure Religious Protections

by | Tue, Nov 14 2023

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Communications Minister Michelle Rowland has flagged major changes to the Albanese government’s proposed misinformation laws including the strengthening of religious freedom protections. The rewrite of the proposed Combating Misinformation and Disinformation Bill could delay its introduction to parliament until the middle of next year.

The minister is adamant that new religious protections would be added to the legislation to address concerns raised with her by faith groups. “We want to make it as explicit as possible that nothing in this bill can inhibit religious expression. That would be a new area that wasn’t considered at the time of the original consultation being commenced, but it clearly is important and we want to address it,” Ms. Rowland stipulated.

The proposed bill seems likely to undergo substantial changes following a chorus of free speech concerns from a range of organisations including legal and human rights groups. The Guardian reports the consultation drew 23,000 responses, including 3,000 submissions, many of which were critical of the bill. The government is set to revise key elements including the definitions of misinformation and disinformation as well as the exemption for government material.

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL)’s Queensland Director Rob Norman told Vision Radio: “This is a great story of people power. The Labor government made a statement that they were really full on about introducing this bill by the end of the year. It’s been pushed back now to the first half of next year because they’ve seen the need to introduce exemptions for religious speech or ‘religious speak.'”

“Previously, it was only governments that are exempted from misinformation, disinformation. This uncovers the fact that once we start controlling what people are allowed to say and not allowed to say, we then start trying to plug all the holes and all the problems with it. And so often a bill like this can introduce bigger problems than they’re trying to fix,” Mr. Norman asserted.

The original draft would have given power to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) and online platforms such as Meta and YouTube to enforce the law, prompting the ACL to warn: “The bill threatens the very essence of our democratic rights. It grants the government the power to define truth and empowers regulatory bodies to enforce it, while exempting the government and mainstream media from the same rules. We must act now to protect freedom of speech and oppose the enforcement of ideological conformity in Australia.”

That lobbying has paid off. Minister Rowland said the government was “taking the time to work through” submissions to the draft bill and  consider “refinements”. There will be a review of which organisations are exempted from the proposed laws and “clarification on religious freedom.” Ms. Rowland said the government remained committed to introducing legislation that would fine social media companies for allowing false information to be broadcast on their platforms.

“The Albanese government is committed to holding powerful digital platforms to account for seriously harmful misinformation and disinformation on their services, I do want to stress that in the face of seriously harmful content that sows division, undermines support for pillars of our democracy, or disrupts public health responses, doing nothing is not an option in this area,” she said.

“As we’ve seen with the rise of generative AI, the risks posed by that technology make ensuring we have a framework around mis- and disinformation even more important than ever. We are taking this very seriously. We do want to acknowledge and actually act on the consultation and the work that a lot of people have put into it.”

The Australian reports: “It is unclear to what extent the drafting changes may alter the core framework proposed in the current bill, which gives ACMA a range of powers to ensure social media companies combat misinformation and disinformation on their platforms, including imposing hefty penalties. Maximum fines can reach $6.88 million, or 5% of a company’s global turnover – whichever is higher.”

In its submission to the draft bill, the Law Council of Australia warned the proposal could have a “chilling effect on freedom of expression” by allowing social media giants and the communications watchdog to decide what constitutes information, opinion and claims online.

Opposition communications spokesman David Coleman said the government had “begun walking back from one of its signature policies. We are seeing the pack of cards of the misinformation bill starting to come down. There has been a deep catalogue of criticisms of the bill from groups including the Human Rights Commission, civil liberties groups, leading lawyers, religious bodies and the media union. The Coalition has been demonstrating the many flaws with this bill and now the government has been forced into making changes.”

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