Australian communications minister cold on more reforms to rein in social media censorship

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The Australian communications minister, Paul Fletcher, has poured cold water on suggestions within the Coalition that the government should curb social media companies’ powers to ban users and censor posts.

As Australian conservatives expressed disquiet over social media companies baning the outgoing US president, Donald Trump, from their platforms, the communications minister signalled the government would continue reforms to increase their responsibilities as publishers rather than pursue a laissez-faire approach.

It comes as the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, renews pressure on the prime minister, Scott Morrison, to denounce fringe views in the government, and acting prime minister, Michael McCormack, dealt a backhand both to Trump and Twitter.

The treasurer and deputy Liberal leader, Josh Frydenberg, told reporters on Monday he was “pretty uncomfortable” with decisions to ban Trump because freedom of speech is “fundamental”.

Government MPs including National George Christensen and Liberal Craig Kelly have criticised social media for censoring Trump’s posts describing the mob who stormed the US Capitol as “very nice people”, arguing he’d also told them to go home “in peace”.

On Sunday, Christensen proposed laws to “stop social media platforms from censoring any and all lawful content created by their users”, an apparent reversal of his current policy on Facebook that “publishers have the right to remove content that goes against the rules or ethos of their publication”.

Moderate Liberal MP Dave Sharma has said although the decision to ban Trump was “right on the facts” he was “deeply uncomfortable [with the] precedent of big tech making decisions about whose speech, and which remarks, are censored and suppressed”.

Sharma has endorsed the view of Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chair, Rod Sims, that more transparency is required.

“Clearly the digital platforms do have some control over what we see and read,” Sims reportedly told the Sydney Morning Herald.

“How much we can leave it up to the digital platforms … is one of the defining questions we have to face. We definitely need the government to get to grips with this; we can’t just leave it with the digital platforms.”

The ACCC spent 2020 negotiating a code of conduct with internet companies to cover payment for news content.

Social media companies are also developing a voluntary code to deal with taking down disinformation, to be enforced by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

A spokesperson for Acma told Guardian Australia it supports “a graduated range of responses to harmful behaviour and content” but “strongly encourages platforms to strengthen their transparency and accountability to their users”.

“Platforms should be clearer about their misinformation policies and how and when they apply them.”

In December, the Coalition released a draft online safety bill for consultation, proposing to give the eSafety Commissioner powers to force internet service providers, social media companies and online platforms to remove severely harmful, abusive or bullying content.

Asked if the Coalition could adopt the Christensen or Sims proposals, a spokesperson for Fletcher told Guardian Australia: “The government’s position on regulating the content on social media platforms is captured in the draft online safety bill. The government has no intention of regulating beyond these areas.”

Earlier, Frydenberg said the government had taken action against material preaching hate and violence. Although social media regulation was a “fast-moving space” Frydenberg said his focus had been on the bargaining code.

Kelly and Christensen have both argued that antifa members may have been present in the Capitol mob. Morrison has so far defended his MPs’ right to freedom of speech even in relation to false claims about the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election.

Albanese told 2SM Radio that the “extremely dangerous” Capitol siege was prompted by “mistruths” and “encouraged by Donald Trump”.

He welcomed the moves by social media companies against Trump, saying: “It’s about time that people weren’t given a platform to spread hatred, to spread lies, which has had consequences for people.”

Albanese also argued Kelly had spread “conspiracy theories” about the treatment of Covid-19, over earlier misleading claims about the effectiveness of hyrdoxychloroquine.

“It’s got to be called out. I can’t understand how someone like Craig Kelly can be allowed to promote these theories, along with George Christensen and others, and remain a part of mainstream society.”

Albanese noted that Kelly, although a backbencher, is also chair of the parliamentary joint committee on law enforcement.

Earlier, Frydenberg said MPs were accountable to their electorates, and regardless of what they said or tweeted “they are democratically elected”.

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