The industry body representing Google, Facebook and Twitter has rejected proposals for an industry code of conduct on fake news, warning that the recommendation would turn Australia’s media regulator into the truth police.
The Digital Industry Group Inc – a non-profit association representing the social media and digital giants in Australia – made the warning in a submission to the competition regulator’s digital platforms review, arguing against eight of its 23 recommendations.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission recommended new codes of practice to ensure fairness and transparency in the digital ad market and to govern handling of complaints about inaccurate information, to be enforced by an independent regulator such as the Australian Communications and Media Authority.
But Digi has argued against a “one-size-fits-all” code of conduct on fake news, arguing that what might be considered appropriate in one forum – such as the removal of a public post containing disinformation – “may be considered as intrusive and inappropriate on a private messaging platform”.
“An appropriate intervention on one platform (such as partnerships with third-party fact-checkers) may be cost-prohibitive and unscalable for another,” it said.
Although the ACCC sought to avoid the government “directly determining the trustworthiness” of news, the recommendation “effectively [put] that burden on platforms”, Digi’s submission said.
“The ACCC indicates that the code would enable members of the public who are unsatisfied with digital platforms’ handling of their complaints about disinformation or malinformation [to] refer these to the regulator.
“This effectively makes the ACMA a truth verification body, as its judgements as to whether a digital platform adequately handled the complaints speak to the regulator’s own assessment of truth in relation to the matter in question.”
New rules covering “information incorrectly alleging that a public individual is involved with illegal activity” would be “particularly problematic when people take to digital platforms, such as Twitter, for whistleblowing to raise awareness of injustices that have not yet been presented in court, as was seen with the #metoo movement”.
During Australia’s 2019 election, Facebook refused to shut down a social media campaign spreading misinformation that Labor intended to introduce a death tax, explaining that it only intervened if material breached community standards.
The ACCC chairman, Rod Sims, has argued the social media giant has the capacity to stop the spread of fake news but chooses not to.
The communications minister, Paul Fletcher, has said he has some sympathy with Facebook because it does not hold itself out as a traditional media publisher with editorial standards, but has suggested it could be required to help its users better assess the veracity of content.
Digi responded to a call for new rules governing how digital platforms deal with news organisations by recognising the “intent” to protect journalism. But it warned against “market-wide interventions that will have unintended consequences for the digital industry”.
New specialised codes of conduct may “put digital native companies at a commercial disadvantage in a rapidly shifting digital advertising market”, it said.
Digi also argued against new rules to take into account technology and data transfer and whether an acquisition would “result in the removal from the market of a potential competitor” when considering if a merger should be prohibited because it substantially lessened competition.
It said the recommendation was “disappointing” and accused the ACCC of not responding to analysis of its impact on the technology industry and seeking to impose “innovation-stifling red tape”.
“Acquisitions of Australian companies in particular could see major sectoral growth, and resulting consumer benefit,” it said. “Furthermore, such proposed regulations serve as a deterrent to global companies from investing or expanding operations in the Australian market.”
Digi submitted that privacy recommendations requiring user consent before an IP address or device identifier was collected would result in “a consumer being blocked with a consent screen before a page can even load”.
It warned that if privacy compliance “becomes overly complex” it could result “in declining conversion rates and revenue, global companies and startups may withdraw or not develop products and services for the Australian market”.
Submissions for the digital platforms inquiry closed on Thursday. So far, the government has suggested it is open to forcing Netflix, YouTube and other streaming companies to produce more Australian content.