Australia passes law to stop spread of violent content online

Internet providers and tech giants like Facebook and Google will be compelled to remove violent content in a sweeping new law passed in Australia in the wake of the Christchurch massacre that killed 50 people.

Under the new law, which passed both houses of Parliament Thursday, obligations will be placed on internet companies to stop the spread of violent material. Failure to do so could see executives face up to three years in jail, or fines of up to 10% of the platform’s annual turnover.

Much of the March 15 massacre was live streamed on social media by the shooter. Platforms have struggled in the weeks since to remove copies of the video, which have been repeatedly uploaded.

“The tragedy in Christchurch just over two weeks ago brought this issue to a head,” Australian Attorney General Christian Porter said in a statement.

“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 (government) has taken action with this legislation.”

The law was passed with the support of the opposition Labor Party and despite strenuous objections from industry bodies and some lawmakers, who warned against a knee-jerk rush to pass legislation that could have far-reaching ramifications.

Sen. Richard Di Natale, leader of the Australian Greens party, said the bill had been “rammed through” Parliament.

“Of course, in the wake of Christchurch, we need to look at how we regulate social media and online content,” he said in the Senate Wednesday. “But you don’t go about this by introducing legislation that the Parliament can’t even debate and scrutinize. And it’s all done with the support of a compliant Labor Party.”

He added that “if we’re going to regulate social media, let’s do it properly. Let’s have an inquiry. Let’s talk to the people who know something about this stuff — not the Liberals whose only intent here is a knee-jerk reaction in the lead-up to an election, to show they’re doing something, which may, in fact, even prove to be counterproductive.”

The Law Council of Australia said the legislation could have “serious unintended consequences.”

“Making social media companies and their executives criminally liable for the live streaming of criminal content is a serious step which requires careful consideration. Furthermore, the proposed legislation should not absolve the government taking steps to prevent crimes being live streamed,” Law Council President Arthur Moses SC said in a statement.

“It could also lead to censorship of the media, which would be unacceptable.”

Sen. Mitch Fifield, who co-sponsored the legislation, defended the law on Twitter: “Today we passed world-first legislation to punish individuals, websites and social media platforms that publish and host abhorrent material. In the aftermath of the Christchurch shootings, we are taking a zero-tolerance approach to sharing such material.”

However Sunita Bose, managing director of the Digital Industry Group, which represents companies including Facebook and Google in Australia, said it had been passed “without any meaningful consultation with the digital industry, security, legal and technical experts.”

“Announcing measures such as jailing staff at social media companies is inappropriate for a democracy such as Australia, and does not help the debate or solve the issue,” she added.

According to the Guardian Australia, Labor promised to review the legislation if elected when the the country goes to the polls next month — despite supporting it in opposition.

“Never has petty party politics so clearly been on display,” said Scott Farquhar, CEO of Australian software firm Atlassian. “The (Labor party) agreed it was flawed but supported it anyway … We elect officials to do what’s best for the country, but they are point scoring instead.”