Religious exemptions won’t fix flawed misinformation bill

Australia's Communications Minister, Michelle Rowland, has announced significant revisions to the government's proposed misinformation laws, with a focus on incorporating religious protections into the bill. 

This rewrite will result in a delayed timeline for introduction of the bill to parliament. It is now not expected to be introduced until 2024. 

The government has cited its need to assess submissions to the draft legislation and consider potential refinements. Among the expected changes are revisions to the definitions of misinformation and disinformation, exemptions for certain organisations from the proposed laws, and clarification on the scope of religious freedom.

The draft legislation however has faced criticism from many individuals and organisations. The Law Council of Australia and the Australian Human Rights Commission have both raised concerns about its potential impact on freedom of expression. Critics argue that the bill grants too much power to social media platforms and the communications watchdog to determine what constitutes information, opinion, and claims online, while exempting the government itself from its reach.

Opposition communications spokesman David Coleman has responded to the proposed changes:  

“There has been a deep catalogue of criticisms of the bill from groups including the Human Rights Commission, civil liberties groups, leading lawyers, religious bodies and the media union.

“Today’s humiliating backdown on just the religious freedoms question barely scratches the surface of the many problems with Labor’s deeply flawed bill.

“It also doesn’t deal with the central problem of the bill which would see the opinions of everyday Australians censored.”

While the government's adjustment to include religious protections has been acknowledged by some as a significant step, others have argued that it merely scratches the surface of the bill's overarching issues, including potential censorship of everyday Australians' opinions. 

HRLA calls on the government to abandon the draft legislation altogether on the basis that it is inherently flawed. 

The legislation, even in its amended form, would give government bureaucrats extraordinary regulatory powers to police online content and remove information it considers to be ‘harmful’.

John Steenhof, Principal Lawyer at HRLA has likened these latest amendments as being akin to putting a “band-aid on cancer”. 

The impact on freedom of speech in Australia cannot be overstated, given that the state would be given the power to control what its citizens can and cannot say.