Indian government to establish fact-checking network; Australia’s Robodebt inquiry delayed: policy & delivery news in brief

By on 23/02/2023 | Updated on 23/02/2023
A man sits at his laptop with Indian flags above his head and his wife and child next to him.

Global Government Forum’s weekly digest of the news you need to know but might have missed.

Indian government working to establish network of ‘trusted fact checkers’

India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITy) is working with tech companies to create a network of “trusted fact checkers”, in a bid to combat AI-generated misinformation online.

It is understood that the network – which would be a self-regulatory body – would not cover information related to the government, which is overseen separately by a fact checking unit within the country’s Press Information Bureau.

MEITy officials met with representatives of Meta, Alphabet, Indian microblogging platform Koo and others on 17 February. According to The Indian Express, they were asked to submit suggestions on building a fact-checking network, including criteria that should be followed to determine who a “trusted” fact checker can be.

The meeting was chaired by minister of state for electronics and IT Rajeev Chandrasekhar who tweeted that its purpose was to “deal with deepfakes, misinformation, false information etc” and to promote online safety. Deepfakes use a form of artificial intelligence called deep learning to make images of fake events.

 Read more: Indian government urged to prioritise privacy as it embarks on data-sharing plan

The Indian Express reported that stakeholder at the meeting suggested that the fact-checking network should collate a list of content deemed to be fake news and share it with government periodically, with the government then issuing orders to block flagged content. It is understood that a suggestion was also made to make the network’s methodology publicly available for transparency.

Under amendments to India’s Information Technology Rules 2021 proposed by MEITy last month, social media platforms would be required to remove content flagged as fake or false by the central government’s fact-checking unit, which is part of the Press Information Bureau (PIB). This would include “misinformation” related to the government.

The proposal has drawn criticism, including from civil society organisations and media bodies like the Editors Guild of India which said that the “determination of fake news cannot be in the sole hands of the government and will result in censorship of the press”.

Instances have been reported of content flagged as fake news by PIB turning out to be true and accurate.

Read more: Indian government to activate digital ID at birth

The topic of fact checking was raised during a Global Government Forum webinar on tackling mis- and disinformation last November. In response to a question about whether governments were considering introducing online mechanisms for use by the public that filter reliable from unreliable news, Alex Aiken, executive director of government communications at the UK’s Government Communication Service, issued a warning.

I think that we go down quite an interesting path if we start trying to fact check media in a free society,” he said, adding that people should be able to consume news in the way that they see fit.

Vivikka Richt, director of communications at Finland’s Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, agreed that institutions that try to regulate facts undermine the principles of a free and open society. Both Aitken and Richt believe that teaching media literacy in schools should be a key part of helping members of the public to differentiate between reliable and unreliable news.

Read more: The rise of misinformation and how governments are combatting it

Australia’s Robodebt royal commission report deadline pushed back

The publication of findings of an inquiry into a scandal in which the Australian federal government chased more than 400,000 citizens for inflated or non-existent debts has been pushed back by three months.

Originally scheduled to be delivered at the end of March, the report into what went wrong is now expected to be published at the end of June due to several witnesses being unable to sit before the commission on anticipated dates.

The country’s prime minister Anthony Albanese called the royal commission in August last year. It had been one of his pledges in the run-up to the May 2022 federal election, which his party won, ousting the coalition government that had overseen the failed debt-calculation system between 2016 and 2020, when it was scrapped.

The system was used by Centrelink – the Services Australia agency responsible for making social security payments – to identify people who had been overpaid benefits. It calculated people’s income over short periods and assumed that their earnings remained steady throughout the year, leading government to unlawfully demand that claimants pay back non-existent debts or more than was owed.

The ‘Robodebt’ scheme has been the subject of considerable controversy with critics saying it exacerbated mental health illnesses in some of the country’s most vulnerable people and may have led to suicides. It has been the subject of an investigation by the Commonwealth Ombudsman, two Senate committee inquiries, and several legal challenges. In 2021, a federal court judge awarded victims a AUS£1.8bn (US$1.2bn) settlement.

Read more: Australian government was aware robodebt programme unlawful, emails reveal

“The royal commission will examine the establishment of the scheme, who was responsible for why it was necessary, how concerns were handled, how the scheme was financing the government and measures to prevent this from ever happening again,” Albanese said. 

The delay to the report means it will be published after the May federal budget. However, it is understood the government will allocate funding to fix some of the shortcomings already identified as having contributed to the debt collection system’s failings or to have hindered investigations into it, such as oversight and record-keeping issues.

An Australian Public Service Integrity Taskforce has already been created in response to the scandal.

The commission has been allocated AUS$30m (US$20m) is being led by former chief justice of the Queensland Supreme Court Catherine Holmes.

Read more: Australian PM wants to use insight from public servants to drive government reforms

Israel pushes ahead with controversial justice reform amid protests  

Lawmakers in Israel voted on Monday to support two key bills of a highly contentious judicial reform plan that has sparked weeks of protests across the country.

The legislation would give politicians greater control over the selection of judges, and strip the Supreme Court of its powers to strike down basic laws passed by parliament.

Lawmakers voted by 63 to 47 to support the bills at first reading.

Other proposed legislative changes include allowing a simple majority in the Knesset to annul rulings by the Supreme Court, and reducing the influence of legal advisers within ministries.

The plan is a cornerstone of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration – an alliance with ultra-Orthodox and extreme-right parties that took office in December – which views the Supreme Court as politicised and says reforms are necessary to correct an imbalance that has given judges too much power over elected politicians.

The reform plans have been widely criticised as an attack on democracy and have sparked protests attended by tens of thousands of people in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and elsewhere since the beginning of January. Inside parliament, opposition lawmakers disrupted Monday’s debate with shouts of “shame”.

After the vote, Israeli president Issac Herzog, whose powers are largely ceremonial said: “This is a difficult morning. Many people fear for the nation’s unity”, and added that “we need to make every effort to continue dialogue after this vote, to reach an agreed framework to take us out of this difficult period”.

Supreme Court president Esther Hayut, in a rare public rebuke, branded the proposed reforms an “unbridled attack” against justice.

Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid, the centrist former prime minister, also hit out at government lawmakers after the vote passed in a Tweet. “History will judge you for this night – for the attack on democracy, the harm to the economy, the harm to security, for tearing the unity of the people to shreds and simply not caring,” he said.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk, meanwhile, urged Israel to pause the legislation. He said the proposed changes “would drastically undermine the ability of the judiciary to vindicate individual rights and to uphold the rule of law”.

“Experience in Israel, and around the world, has shown the enduring value of a judiciary that can independently hold the other branches of government to the fundamental legal standards of a society set out in its basic laws,” he said.

Netanyahu denounced Turk’s comments as an “absurdity”.

The two bills will now return to the law committee for debate, ahead of second and third readings in the Knesset.

Read more: Israeli government departments to prepare climate change readiness plans

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About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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