Australia passes law to tackle violent content on social media

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (centre) and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton (on his right) speaking with Facebook executives at a meeting with social media executives in Brisbane last week. The new law has angered technology firms, which
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (centre) and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton (on his right) speaking with Facebook executives at a meeting with social media executives in Brisbane last week. The new law has angered technology firms, which say they will be required to proactively conduct surveillance on users.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Firms must remove material such as live-streamed terror attacks quickly or face penalties such as fines or jail terms

Australia passed a controversial law yesterday requiring social media companies to quickly remove "abhorrent violent material" such as live-streamed terrorist attacks, despite concerns the measures could lead to censorship and mass surveillance.

Describing the law as a "world first", Attorney-General Christian Porter said the aim was to prevent social media platforms from being "weaponised" by extremists.

The law comes just weeks after an Australian white supremacist broadcast a live-stream video on Facebook as he killed 50 people in a mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

"There was a near unanimous view among Australians that social media platforms had to take more responsibility for their content," Mr Porter told reporters yesterday.

Under the new law, technology firms are to ensure "expeditious" removal of audio or video that features actions such as terrorist acts, murder, rape, torture or kidnapping. They must also inform the police when such content is found.

Firms that fail to remove such content "expeditiously" could face fines of up to 10 per cent of their annual turnover, and employees could be jailed for up to three years.

  • What social media firms must do

  • • Firms must expeditiously remove abhorrent violent material from social media.

    • Firms must notify Australian police of streaming of violence occurring in Australia.

    • Executives and others who are found guilty could face up to three years in jail.

    • Firms could be fined up to 10 per cent of their annual turnover.

The measures have angered technology firms, which say they will be required to proactively conduct surveillance on users.

The Digital Industry Group, an advocacy organisation whose members include Facebook, Google and Twitter, said the legislation should have been based on discussion with the technology industry, legal experts, the media and civil society to "get the solution right". The group's managing director, Ms Sunita Bose, said the law failed to deal with hate speech, which had motivated the Christchurch gunman.

"(It is) bad for Internet users as it encourages companies to proactively surveil the vast volumes of user-generated content being uploaded at any given minute," she said in a statement.

"Let's be clear: No one wants abhorrent content on their websites… But with the vast volumes of content uploaded to the Internet every second, this is a highly complex problem."

Facebook revealed it removed about 1.5 million copies of the gunman's video within the first 24 hours after the shooting. But the firm has been criticised for being too slow to respond initially.

Industry groups said they acknowledged the need to do more to curb extremism online, but the new law was rushed and could lead to firms being prosecuted unfairly. The legislation appeared to have been hurried through in advance of Prime Minister Scott Morrison calling an election very soon.

 
 
 

But it appears to leave open numerous questions, including exactly how quickly firms must remove offending material.

Mr Porter would not give a specific timeframe, but said Facebook failed to remove the Christchurch gunman's video for more than an hour, and this would have breached the new law. He said he held discussions with Facebook and other firms last week, and they had shown no acknowledgement of the urgency of preventing further broadcasting of horrific violence.

"Using the Christchurch example, I can't precisely say what would have been the point of time at which it would have been reasonable for them to understand that this was live-streaming on their site," he told reporters.

"But… it was totally unreasonable that it should exist on their site for well over an hour without them taking any action whatsoever, and this law would prevent that."

Other critics said the law failed to provide clear guidance on the processes technology firms should undertake to comply. In addition, the Australian authorities could face legal difficulties in trying to prosecute firms based offshore.

The president of the Law Council of Australia, Mr Arthur Moses, said the law could have "unintended consequences" and a "chilling effect on businesses investing in Australia". He said the government should "not demand of social media companies what they cannot reasonably be expected to do".

"It could… lead to censorship of the media, which would be unacceptable," he said in a statement.

The opposition Labor party supported the law, but said it would order a review if it wins the next election, due to be held next month.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2019, with the headline 'Australia passes law to tackle violent content on social media'. Print Edition | Subscribe