Australia is set to introduce some of the toughest social media legislation worldwide, after Parliament voted Thursday to pass changes that could allow judges to send social media executives to prison over content streamed or hosted on their platforms. The hastily prepared law was drafted by the governing conservative party in response to attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in mid-March.
While the Australian government led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison hopes to inspire similar legislation elsewhere, the law has drawn significant criticism from both the social media lobby and free speech advocates.
The attacker live-streamed the massacre on Facebook for 17 minutes, and the recording later spread to other platforms, including YouTube. Authorities around the world lashed out at social media giants for failing to contain the video’s online exposure, with lawmakers demanding tougher legislation in a number of countries. Australia’s now-passed law is the first of its kind. Australian citizen Brenton Tarrant was arrested by New Zealand police shortly after the attacks and was charged with murder in the case.
Social media companies argue that they have significantly stepped up their efforts to stop violent videos from spreading online in recent months. Facebook said it removed or blocked 1.5 million videos of the footage within 24 hours of the Christchurch attack, “using a combination of technology and people,” according to a spokesman.
In a Washington Post op-ed published March 30, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg also demanded more support from authorities. “I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators,” he wrote. “By updating the rules for the Internet, we can preserve what’s best about it — the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things — while also protecting society from broader harms.”
Australia’s new social media laws arguably take the opposite view, however, and instead put significantly more pressure on social media companies.
“It was clear from our discussions last week with social media companies, particularly Facebook, that there was no recognition of the need for them to act urgently to protect their own users from the horror of the live streaming of the Christchurch massacre and other violent crimes and so the Morrison Government has taken action with this legislation,” Australian Attorney General Christian Porter said in a statement.
If social media companies fail to remove violent footage showing murder, torture, terrorism, kidnapping incidents or rape that were filmed by the attackers themselves or by their accomplices, they would face hefty fines or even prison sentences of up to three years.
Fines could amount to up to 10 percent of a social media platform’s annual turnover. The new law also requires platforms to notify Australian authorities once they become aware of such filmed incidents that occurred in Australia, with possible fines looming if social networks fail to do so.
Critics have argued that the law was put together within days and without appropriate consultation. While it focuses on violence, the law does not adequately address core causes, including hate speech, they say.
In the worst case, the law could result in mass censorship of content in Australia, or in a reduced willingness among social media companies to grow or invest in the Australian market because doing so may force them to breach U.S. data-sharing laws, according to skeptics. Footage of human rights abuses — used by human rights advocates to raise awareness of conflicts and governmental crimes — may end up being removed by social media companies unwilling to consider their significance amid the risk of hefty punishments.
With Australian elections expected to take place in May, a change in government may still derail the law’s implementation, or result in substantial changes.
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