Op Ed – The Daily Telegraph – This is a Bill that needs to be thrown into the bin now

Unlike people in many parts of the world, Australians are allowed to say what they think. This democratic freedom is a big part of our success as a nation. We should always fight to protect it.

The Albanese Government has released a new Misinformation Bill that would have a huge negative impact on our freedom of speech. It needs to be stopped because no government should tell us what we can and cannot say. Disagreeing about things, even arguing about them, is how we move forward in a democracy. If we all agreed on everything, then nothing would ever change. And we would be a much weaker country.

Labor’s Bill would see huge fines issued to tech companies if the Government thinks they are not doing enough to reduce misinformation online. To avoid those fines, these companies will remove the free speech of Australians. And there’s going to be a lot of deleting going on because the Bill will capture thousands of statements made by Australians every day.

Under the Government’s Bill, something can be misinformation even if you hold that view in good faith and believe it is true. It could be a strongly held belief on politics or social issues or religion. To be misinformation, all that’s required is that the statement is “misleading” and that it’s capable of contributing to “serious harm”. Harm includes things like harm to the economy or to the environment, so would capture a lot of discussions that Australians are involved in online.

Who decides if something is misinformation? It’s the Government. While the tech companies decide which pieces of content get taken down, the Government decides whether the tech companies are deleting enough material. And to form that view, the Government — through its regulator ACMA — will need to have an opinion on how much misinformation there is on a particular web site. So the Government will decide whether material about politics and other things can and cannot be said by Australians. It’s very obvious that this is a really bad idea.

Incredibly, the Albanese Government has excluded itself from this law. Under the Bill, anything the Government authorises can’t be misinformation. But if you criticise the Government, that can be misinformation. This is outrageous and impossible for the Government to defend. The Government has also excluded some other groups from the Bill, like university academics. But they haven’t excluded an average person expressing their views online. This means that the same thing could be misinformation if it’s said by an ordinary Australian but not misinformation if it’s said by an academic. How can that be fair?

And the Bill has another sting in the tail. It gives Government officials the power to require anybody to appear before them to answer questions about allegations of misinformation. If you are called, you must appear before the officials. And if you don’t attend, you can be fined more than $8000 per day. This power is clearly over the top and will have a chilling impact on free speech.

Because the Bill is so bad, it has come in for heavy criticism. Everyone from the Human Rights Commission to the media union to key civil liberties groups have pointed to the massive problems with the proposal. But the Government is still saying that they want to press ahead. Instead of trying to impose this new law on Australia, the Government should bin the Bill. They should rip it up into little pieces and apologise for proposing it in the first place.

David Coleman is Shadow Minister for Communications