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Facebook-backed Australian group to probe social media misinformation complaints

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A tech body backed by the Australian units of Facebook, Google and Twitter said on Monday it has set up a special committee to adjudicate complaints over misinformation, a day after the government threatened tougher laws over false and defamatory online posts.

The issue of damaging social media posts has emerged as a second battlefront between Big Tech and Australia, which last year passed a law to make platforms pay licence fees for content, sparking a temporary Facebook blackout in February.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week labelled social media “a coward’s palace,” while the government said on Sunday it was looking at measures to make social media companies more responsible, including forcing legal liability onto the platforms for the content published on them.

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The Digital Industry Group Inc (DIGI), which represents the Australian units of Facebook Inc, Alphabet’s Google and Twitter Inc, said its new misinformation oversight subcommittee showed the industry was willing to self-regulate against damaging posts.

The tech giants had already agreed a code of conduct against misinformation, “and we wanted to further strengthen it with independent oversight from experts, and public accountability,” DIGI Managing Director Sunita Bose said in a statement.

A three-person “independent complaints sub-committee” would seek to resolve complaints about possible breaches of the code conduct via a public website, DIGI said, but would not take complaints about individual posts.

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The industry’s code of conduct includes items such as taking action against misinformation affecting public health, which would include the novel coronavirus.

DIGI, which also counts Apple Inc and TikTok as signatories, said it could issue a public statement if a company was found to have violated the code of conduct or revoke its signatory status with the group.

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Australian communications minister Paul Fletcher, who has been among senior lawmakers promising tougher action against platforms hosting misleading and defamatory content, welcomed the measure, while consumer groups argued it did not go far enough.

“I’m pleased that DIGI is announcing an important development to strengthen the way the code will protect Australians from misinformation and disinformation,” Fletcher said in a statement.

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But Reset Australia, an advocate group focused on the influence of technology on democracy, said the oversight panel was “laughable” as it involved no penalties and the code of conduct was optional.

“DIGI’s code is not much more than a PR stunt given the negative PR surrounding Facebook in recent weeks,” said Reset Australia Director of tech policy Dhakshayini Sooriyakumaran in a statement, urging regulation for the industry.

Australian Communications Consumer Action Network CEO Andrew Williams said the move was “a step in the right direction” but too limited since only people with Google accounts could lodge complaints on the new website.

“It’s important that any information that consumers need to know about the DIGI Complaints Portal is easy to find and accessible for everyone,” he said.

(Reporting by Byron Kaye; editing by Richard Pullin)

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