New Australia law threatens social media firms with fines, jail over violent content

Facebook came under sharp criticism for not taking down a video live-streamed by the alleged Christchurch gunman fast enough. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - Australia will fine social media companies up to 10 per cent of their annual global turnover and imprison executives for up to three years if violent content is not removed "expeditiously" under a new law passed by the country's Parliament on Thursday (April 4).

The new law is in response to a lone gunman's attack on two mosques in Christchurch on March 15, killing 50 people as they attended Friday prayers. The gunman broadcasted his attack live on Facebook and it was widely shared for over an hour before being removed, a timeframe Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison described as unacceptable.

Australian Brenton Tarrant, 28, a suspected white supremacist, has been charged with one murder following the attack and was remanded without a plea. He is due back in court on Friday, when police said he is likely to face more charges.

It is now an offence in Australia for companies, such as Facebook Inc and Alphabet's Google, which owns YouTube, not to remove any videos or photographs that show murder, torture or rape without delay.

Companies must also inform Australian police within a "reasonable" timeframe.

"It is important that we make a very clear statement to social media companies that we expect their behaviour to change," Mr Mitch Fifield, Australia's minister for communications and the arts, told reporters in Canberra.

Australian Attorney-General Christian Porter described the laws as a "world first in terms of legislating the conduct of social media and online platforms".

Juries will decide whether companies have complied with the timetable, heightening the risk of high-profile convictions.

"Whenever there are juries involved, they can get it wrong but when you add into the mix technology - which is complex - the risk is heightened," Dr Jason Bosland, professor of media law, University of Melbourne told Reuters.

Technology firms said they are already working on the issue.

"We have zero tolerance for terrorist content on our platforms," said a spokesperson for Google in an emailed statement. "We are committed to leading the way in developing new technologies and standards for identifying and removing terrorist content."

A spokesman for Facebook was not immediately able for comment. Facebook said last week that it was exploring restrictions on who can access their live video-streaming service, depending on factors such as previous violations of the site's community standards.

Australia's opposition Labor party backed the legislation, but said it will consult with the technology industry over possible amendments if it wins power at an election due in May. Australia's Parliament will rise until after the election and the newly elected lawmakers will not sit until at least July.

Critics of the legislation said the government moved too quickly, without proper consultation and consideration.

"Laws formulated as a knee-jerk reaction to a tragic event do not necessarily equate to good legislation and can have myriad unintended consequences," said Mr Arthur Moses, head of the Australian Law Council.

Digital Industry Group Inc (DIGI) - of which Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon and Twitter are members - said the laws fail to understand the complexity of removing violent content. "With the vast volumes of content uploaded to the internet every second, this is a highly complex problem," said Ms Sunita Bose, Managing Director of DIGI.

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