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Australia could jail social media executives over violence streaming

Critics warn that some of the most restrictive laws about online communication in the democratic world could have unforeseen consequences.

Facebook (Dominic Lipinski/PA)
Facebook (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Australia’s parliament has passed legislation that could imprison social media executives if their platforms stream real violence such as the New Zealand mosque shootings.

Critics warn that some of the most restrictive laws about online communication in the democratic world could have unforeseen consequences, including media censorship and reduced investment in Australia.

The conservative government introduced the bills in response to the March 15 attacks in Christchurch in which an Australian white supremacist apparently used a helmet-mounted camera to broadcast live on Facebook as he shot worshippers in two mosques.

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Armed police in Christchurch (Vincent Thian/AP)

Australia’s government rushed the legislation through on the last two days of parliament before elections, expected in May, dispensing with the usual procedure of a committee scrutinising its content first.

“Together we must act to ensure that perpetrators and their accomplices cannot leverage online platforms for the purpose of spreading their violent and extreme propaganda — these platforms should not be weaponised for evil,” attorney general Christian Porter told parliament while introducing the bill.

The opposition’s spokesman, Mark Dreyfus, committed his centre-left Labour Party to support the bill despite misgivings. If Labour wins the election, the law would be reviewed by a parliamentary committee.

The law has made it a crime for social media platforms not to remove “abhorrent violent material” quickly. The crime would be punishable by three years in prison and a fine of 10.5 million Australian dollars (£5.6 million), or 10% of the platform’s annual turnover, whichever is larger.

Abhorrent violent material is defined as acts of terrorism, murder, attempted murder, torture, rape and kidnapping. The material must be recorded by the perpetrator or an accomplice for the law to apply.

Platforms anywhere in the world would face fines of up to 840,000 dollars (£450,500) if they fail to notify Australian Federal Police if they are aware their service was streaming such material occurring in Australia.

The bill could potentially undermine Australia’s security co-operation with the US by requiring American internet providers to share content data with Australian Federal Police, in breach of US law, Mr Dreyfus said.

An attempt by the minor Greens and independent legislators to have the vote scrutinised by a parliamentary committee was rejected.

Media freedom and whistleblowing of atrocities here and overseas have been put at risk by the ill-informed live-stream laws passed by the Federal Parliament Arthur Moses

The Digital Industry Group — an association representing the digital industry in Australia including Facebook, Google and Twitter — said taking down abhorrent content was a “highly complex problem” that required consultation with a range of experts, which the government had not done.

“This law, which was conceived and passed in five days without any meaningful consultation, does nothing to address hate speech, which was the fundamental motivation for the tragic Christchurch terrorist attacks,” the group’s managing director Sunita Bose said.

“This creates a strict internet intermediary liability regime that is out of step with the notice-and-takedown regimes in Europe and the United States, and is therefore 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 added.

Arthur Moses, president of the Australian Law Council, said the legislation could lead to media censorship and prevent whistleblowers from using social media to shine a light on atrocities because of media companies’ fear of prosecution.

“Media freedom and whistleblowing of atrocities here and overseas have been put at risk by the ill-informed live-stream laws passed by the Federal Parliament,” he said.

Executives of Facebook, Google, Twitter, internet service providers and Australian phone companies met prime minister Scott Morrison and three ministers last week to discuss social media regulation.

Communications minister Mitch Fifield said Facebook “did not present any immediate solutions to the issues arising out of the horror that occurred in Christchurch”.

PA

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