In Australia, Facebook et al to check misinformation complaints

The issue of damaging online posts has emerged as a second battlefront between Big Tech and Australia.

Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram icons are seen on a mobile device in Belgrade, Serbia
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called social media 'a coward's palace' [File: EPA-EFE/Andrej Cukic]

A tech body backed by the Australian units of Facebook, Google and Twitter has set up a special committee to adjudicate complaints about misinformation, a day after the government threatened tougher laws over false and defamatory online posts.

The Digital Industry Group Inc (DIGI), which represents the Australian units of Facebook Inc, Alphabet’s Google and Twitter Inc, said on Monday its new misinformation oversight subcommittee showed the industry was willing to self-regulate against damaging posts.

The issue of damaging online posts has emerged as a second battlefront between Big Tech and Australia, which last year passed a law to make platforms pay licence fees for content, sparking a temporary Facebook blackout in February.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week labelled social media “a coward’s palace”, while the government said on Sunday it was looking at measures to make social media companies more responsible, including holding the platforms legally liable for content published on them.

Reset Australia, an advocate group focused on the influence of technology on democracy, said the oversight panel was “laughable” as it involved no penalties and the code of conduct was optional.

PR stunt or genuine effort?

The tech giants had already agreed a code of conduct against misinformation, “and we wanted to further strengthen it with independent oversight from experts, and public accountability,” DIGI Managing Director Sunita Bose said in a statement.

A three-person “independent complaints sub-committee” would seek to resolve complaints about possible breaches of the code of conduct via a public website, DIGI said, but would not take complaints about individual posts.

The industry’s code of conduct includes items such as taking action against misinformation affecting public health, which would include the novel coronavirus.

DIGI, which also counts Apple Inc and TikTok as signatories, said it could issue a public statement if a company was found to have violated the code of conduct or revoke its signatory status with the group.

Australian Minister of Communications Paul Fletcher, who has been among senior lawmakers promising tougher action against platforms hosting misleading and defamatory content, welcomed the measure.

“I’m pleased that DIGI is announcing an important development to strengthen the way the code will protect Australians from misinformation and disinformation,” he said in a statement.

Source: Reuters