US & World

Australia Criminalizes Failure To Remove Violent Content From Internet Platforms

Australia's Attorney-General Christian Porter, left, and Minister for Communications Mitch Fifield hold a press conference in Canberra. Australia's parliament has passed legislation punishing Internet platforms for failing to remove violent audio and video.
Australia's Attorney-General Christian Porter, left, and Minister for Communications Mitch Fifield hold a press conference in Canberra. Australia's parliament has passed legislation punishing Internet platforms for failing to remove violent audio and video.
Mick Tsikas/AP

Australia's parliament has passed new laws to criminalize Internet platforms for failing to remove violent videos and audio, after an Australian gunman livestreamed himself shooting worshipers in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Under the new legislation, social media executives — among other online content or hosting providers — could be imprisoned for up to three years and companies could face penalties of up to 10% of their annual revenue if they do not remove violent content in an "expeditious" manner.

The bill passed on Thursday local time with cross party support but faced criticism, including that it could cause increased censorship and that the process was rushed.

Christian Porter, Australia's attorney general with the Liberal party, said of the bill, which he called likely a "world first," was a direct response to footage of the terror attacks in New Zealand that spread across social media. The original video was available on Facebook for about an hour from the beginning of the live broadcast – and viewed by thousands of people – before Facebook removed it. Facebook said it blocked or removed 1.5 million copies over the next 24 hours.

"The horror of that act was brought to the world in real time and the platforms that were used to connect with the world were turned against us to amplify the shooter's message of hate and intolerance," Porter told the parliament on Thursday, according to transcripts.

Porter said the legislation is intended to make companies take responsibility for the spread of video or audio of "abhorrent violent conduct" – defined as terrorism, murder, attempted murder, torture, rape and kidnapping.

"There are platforms such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook who do not seem to take their responsibility to not show the most abhorrently violent material seriously," Porter told reporters in Canberra on Thursday, The Guardian reports.

Critics said the bill, which passed in the legislature's last days before upcoming elections set for May, was rushed through the process. The Labor opposition party first saw the legislation late on Monday local time, The Associated Press reports.

Labor supported the bill but promised to revisit the legislation if elected.

"Labor believes that the social media companies must do more in preventing the dissemination of material produced by terrorists showing off their crimes," said Mark Dreyfus, a Labor Party member, according to transcripts. "But I must be clear: this bill is clumsy and flawed in many respects."

Dreyfus argued the bill could encourage "proactive surveillance" by social media companies, undermine Australia's security cooperation with the United States and penalize small companies that do not have the resources to comply with new regulations.

The bill does allow exemptions for violent material to be broadcast or hosted if it is used for certain purposes, including law enforcement, court proceedings, research, artistic work or journalism.

But Dreyfus said the legislation draws an arbitrary distinction between news media and other hosting platforms, such as Twitter.

Arthur Moses, president of the Law Council of Australia, told the AP that the laws could have an impact on online business investment and lead to media censorship.

"Media freedom and whistleblowing of atrocities here and overseas have been put at risk by the ill-informed livestream laws passed by the Federal Parliament," Moses said.

Scott Farquhar, CEO of Sydney-based software company Atlassian, said that the law made any person working at a company that allows uploads of videos or images "guilty until proven innocent."

"They need to violate users privacy to police this," he wrote on Twitter.

The laws apply to material from content or hosting services provided outside of Australia if that material is reasonably accessible within Australia.

The bill also requires companies to notify Australian Federal Police "within a reasonable time after becoming aware of the existence" of video or audio of violent conduct occurring within Australia.

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