Australia's communications and media regulator has released a model framework for how digital platforms should counter the spread of misinformation, and has asked the platforms to work together to develop a single, industry-wide code by December 2020.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) released a position paper today outlining its expectations for a voluntary code that will be used to set principles and commitments to counter misinformation online and empower users to make more informed decisions about news quality.
Addressing the spread of misinformation online forms part of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's (ACCC) broader inquiry into the digital platforms, conducted between 2018 and 2019, that looked at the effect the platforms have on competition in the media and advertising industry in Australia, in particular on the news industry.
When the report was released in July last year, the ACCC recommended a mandatory code to address complaints about disinformation and an oversight role for a regulator to monitor issues of misinformation and the quality of news and information.
In response, the government has asked major digital platforms to develop a voluntary code to cover both recommendations, which will be facilitated by the ACMA.
The ACMA's paper details a suggestion for the framework of this code, including implementing an 'outcomes-based' model that determines the outcomes or objectives that are to be achieved, without prescribing the means of doing so—instead leaving this to the indivdual platforms. Under this model, the platforms would be required to provide sufficient levels of information and data needed to demonstrate compliance and assess performance, providing this "at least annually".
Other suggestions include requiring platforms to make specific commitments to research and associated activities to understand and combat misinformation, and providing users with background information on articles and ads shared, such as labels that detail the source of an advertisement.
The code will apply to online search engines, social media platforms and other digital content aggregation services with at least one million monthly active users in Australia. The ACMA said that this will likely include Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Search and Google News, Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, Apple News and Snapchat.
It could also apply to a range of other online services that play a growing role in distributing news and information, including virtual assistants and smart home devices like Amazon Alexa, online forums like Reddit, podcast aggregators like Spotify and closed group messaging services like WhatsApp.
The code will also tackle issues related to the quality of news, since "difficulty in discerning the quality of news and information can lead to the increased spread of harmful misinformation," the paper states. It says international regulatory approaches to date have largely focused on countering disinformation, which is false and misleading information distributed by malicious actors with the intent to cause harm. But misinformation shared unknowingly "can still lead to significant harm", as this significantly widens the distribution of fake news.
ACMA chairman Nerida O’Loughlin said in a statement: "In developing this new code, digital platforms will need to balance the need to limit the spread and impact of harmful material on the internet while protecting Australians’ important rights to freedom of speech."
The paper acknowledges that platforms have taken further steps to address potential harms, including more prominent labelling and investment in fact-checking tools. But it added that the platforms should "codify their activities and commit to permanent actions that are systematic, transparent, certain and accountable".
The volume of misinformation spread during the Australian bushfire season and the COVID-19 pandemic "have reinforced the potential harms of false and misleading information", according to the paper.
The ACMA said it expects the platforms to undertake an "open, public consultation process" when developing the code, and said it must be in place "by no later than December 2020". The ACMA will then report to the government by June 2021 on the efficacy of the code.
Industry association DIGI, which advocates for the interests of the digital industry including Google, Facebook and Twitter, said it welcomes ACMA's recommendations for greater collaboration.
“We welcome the release of the ACMA’s discussion paper today because collaboration between digital platforms, governments, civil society, academics and the community is essential in the ongoing efforts to address the issue of disinformation," DIGI managing director Sunita Bose said.
“Over time, digital platforms have introduced a broad suite of policies and technical measures to counter disinformation and enable the public to make informed decisions; the code provides an opportunity to develop a common set of principles and commitments in relation to this work and to build on existing efforts," Bose went on.
“DIGI will be working to develop a code by the end of the year, in consultation with the ACMA, a range of digital companies, civil society, academics and with a period of public comment.”
The misinformation code comes alongside the development of a mandatory code that will require digital platforms, chiefly Facebook and Google, to share ad revenue generated from news in order to address the "power imbalance" between tech and traditional media.
In April, the Australian government's treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who ordered the inquiry, ruled that "no meaningful progress" had been made on the development of a mandatory code addressing the issue of the value exchange of distributing news online. In response, Facebook and Google have issued staunch defenses to the existing value they provide, compared to the "minimal" value of news to their bottom lines.