The Cold War on Information
We are socialised human beings. How we are perceived is important. Our 'audience' is everywhere. Reputation is everything.
Whilst there is nothing new to add regarding the importance of protecting the privacy of individuals, we know the Privacy Act 1988 is being reviewed by government in light of significant data breaches over the last few years. Our telco and medical providers have been hacked and sensitive personal information has been taken - to be used for the commercial gain of cyber criminals. Strengthening privacy protections is imperative and deeper mitigation measures will be considered on: when and whether data is required to be collected and for how long it is needed to be retained; how it is stored if it is required to be maintained and the potential right to erasure of personal information.
Whilst we seek to protect our personal information from disclosure, we also seek to gather information to understand more about topics of interest, validate opinions, inform ourselves of current affairs. Today we have the ability to gather information faster than ever before - but is that information correct? Do we check? And when we do, do we understand the commercial value we create through educating algorithms on what we like, so we can get offered more of the same?
The Australian Competition and Consumer Digital Platforms Inquiry
In 2019, as part of a response to the Australian Competition and Consumer (ACCC) Digital Platforms Inquiry (2020-2025), the Government requested that digital platforms in Australia develop a voluntary code of practice to address online disinformation and news sharing.
The Digital Industry Group Inc (DIGI) launched a Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation (the Code in February 2021. The DIGI (formed by Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, TikTok, Redbubble, Apple and Adobe) has since reported that they have collectively blocked and/or removed millions of pieces of COVID-19 related misinformation generated by Australian accounts. Google blocked over 100million advertisements globally for contravening its misrepresentation policies.
The ACCC has since published several reports pursuant to its Digital Platform Services Inquiry (which requires the ACCC to report to the Treasurer every 6 months until 31 March 2025). Already, as expected (pursuant to the 28 April 2021 report in particular) many recommendations and improvements have been suggested on the collection of data, use of data, subscription traps and scams, not to mention issues concerning the inability for users to seek any redress or engage in dispute resolution when harmed.
The government also undertook a process to review Australia's National Uniform Defamation Law. The focus of this review was on the responsibility and liabilities of digital platforms for content published online, following a 2020 decision by the NSW Court of Appeal to uphold a decision which found news outlets liable as 'publishers' for defamatory comments posted by third parties on their public Facebook pages. Whilst platforms now remove/block this content, the code does not address the requirements for the defamatory comments explicitly, and the question posed to digital platforms is whether the defamation law discourages reports of misconduct to employers, police and other investigative or disciplinary bodies.
Despite these measures, and the Code's launch, Australian Communications & Media Authority (ACMA) provided a report to government in June 2021 regarding the adequacy of digital platforms' disinformation and news quality measures - which highlighted several areas that the voluntary code could do with strengthening. This included areas of news aggregation, treatment of professional news content and paid and sponsored content. This review also highlighted that over 82% of Australians experienced misinformation about COVID-19 over the last 18 months, and of these Australians, 22% reported experiencing 'a great deal' of misinformation. Younger Australians are most at risk from misinformation, with evidence of susceptibility among other vulnerable groups in Australia.
Whilst the voluntary Code is having an impact, is it enough? The ACMA review highlighted the prevalence of misinformation and disinformation with explosion of social media, pushing information out faster than we can blink. Whilst many of us may be able to identify misinformation and disinformation, what happens information turns abusive and dangerous?
The Online Safety Bill 2021
The Online Safety Bill 2021 provides for the establishment of a complaints and take-down scheme for serious cyber-abuse material targeting Australian adults on social media services, relevant electronic services and designated internet services. Whilst this is a fallback for situations which are reasonable to conclude would cause serious harm to an Australian adult, the damage may already be done before any take-down is effected.
Our Government is also working on establishing a common standard for online platforms to implement regular and transparent public reporting on the steps they are taking to prevent, detect and remove terrorist and violent extremist content on their platforms. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has established a counter-disinformation branch that works with other agencies to monitor, analyse, assess and respond to disinformation that is contrary to Australia's national interests.
The Response to COVID-19
In response to the threat of COVID-19 misinformation, disinformation and scams targeting the Australian public, Home Affairs also established a 'cell' to identify, assess and make recommendations for action to counter COVID-19 manipulated information and monitor key themes and trends in manipulated narratives. The Department of Health monitors its own social media pages and accounts for misinformation and reports this to digital platforms directly. Social listening tools uncover broad trends, monitor sentiment and merging themes to identify popular hashtags and develop content to address themes. A good example of this is Dr Lucas De Toca's LinkedIn COVID-19 safe public health posts reinforcing important health messages to the public at large.
A Strengthening Democracy Taskforce has been set up in response not only to COVID and the happenings around the US Presidential Election, but also in light of onshore spreading of disinformation during our elections.
Many will remember 'MediScare' and 'the Death Tax' campaigns during recent elections. These campaigns skirt advertising rules and codes and have been adopted by both sides of the government as part of their election strategies. In setting this Taskforce up, perhaps the government has finally recognised that Australia's open society, cohesion and democratic institutions are vital assets worth protecting - and that something must be done about trust in our institutions.
Trust is imperative - reputation is key. If there is more that can be done, what should be done? Who should do it?
Content has always been 'King' but information is 'Power'. The Information Age is concluding with an Information War - reputations are made and broken. Trust in institutions is at an all-time low - where to from here?
Reputations built on ethical foundations, integrity and trusted partnerships will surely prevail and win the Cold War on Information!