After Christchurch Shooting, Tech Giants Face Fines, Imprisonment in Australia over Violent Content

Chesnot/Getty Images

Social media executives can be imprisoned for up to three years and face hefty fines if they can't keep violent content, like the recent live stream of the Christchurch mass shootings, off their sites in future.

Less than three weeks after a killer live-streamed his massacre of 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, the Australian parliament has rushed through a new law threatening social media companies with prison or hefty fines if they can't keep violent content off their sites.

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 percent of their annual revenue if they do not remove violent content in an "expeditious" manner.

The law passed with cross-party support and was hailed by Australia's attorney general Christian Porter as a "world first," but critics have claimed the government rushed the process and that the legislation could increase censorship. Technology and media executives and their legal advisers have warned of a raft of possible “unintended consequences” that could spring from the new legislation. The Australian owners of software giant Atlassian criticized the laws for being "ill-conceived."

The legislation was a direct response to footage of the terror attacks in New Zealand last month. A gunman broadcast 17 minutes of live footage as he killed 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch. The original video was available on Facebook for about an hour after the live broadcast and was viewed by thousands of people before Facebook removed it. Facebook later said it blocked or removed 1.5 million copies of the video that had been shared or reposted over the next 24 hours.

“The tragedy in Christchurch just over two weeks ago brought this issue to a head,” Porter said. "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.”

The legislation also requires social media platforms anywhere in the world to notify the Australian Federal Police if they become aware their service is streaming abhorrent, violent conduct happening in Australia. If they don't, they are liable for fines of up to $168,000 for an individual or $840,000 for a corporation.

"It's not going to take a lot of particular nuanced judgement to work that out. This is footage of rape, murder, torture or kidnapping,” Porter said.

The Law Council of Australia, however, has criticized the law, saying it was rammed through parliament in just 24 hours without proper scrutiny or consultation.

"Important news can be censored across social media platforms, which is contrary to the democratic principle of a free press, which exists to hold governments to account," law council president Arthur Moses said. Communications minister Mitch Fifield said his conservative party would commission an inquiry “into this area of law" after a general election due here in May, but said the government expected immediate behavioural change from tech platforms.

The Digital Industry Group Inc (DIGI) which represents Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and Verizon Media in Australia said that the laws were added without meaningful consultation and threatens penalties against tech companies for content created by users.

DIGI CEO Sunita Bose said in a statement: “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. With the vast volumes of content uploaded to the internet every second, this is a highly complex problem that requires discussion with the technology industry, legal experts, the media and civil society to get the solution right."

Scott Farquhar, co-founder and CEO of Atlassian said on Twitter: “Without any consultation, the government aims to rush through legislation aimed at 'abhorrent violent material.'  Let me be clear, no one wants this material on the internet. But the legislation is flawed and will unnecessarily cost jobs and damage our tech industry. The current legislation means that anyone working for a company that allows user-generated content could potentially go to jail for 3 years.  As written, that applies to news sites, social media sites, dating sites, job sites — anywhere user content could be created. If the material in question is uploaded and you don’t take it down 'expeditiously,' you can go to jail.  What is expeditiously?  Not defined!  'Who' in a company?  Not defined!"

"Mainstream media cannot live broadcast the horror of Christchurch or other violent crimes and neither should social media be able to do so," Fifield said, dismissing claims that the legislation undermined the tech sector in Australia.

“The legislation provides protections for professional journalists disseminating relevant material if it "relates to a news report, or a current affairs report that ... is in the public interest."

Separately, Facebook on Friday announced measures to fight fake news in Australia and said, ahead of national elections next month, it would briefly block foreigners from buying political advertisements Down Under.

Facebook said it would block electoral advertisements purchased outside Australia from being displayed there ahead of a national election due in May.

“Combating foreign interference is a key pillar of our approach to safeguarding elections on our platform,” Facebook Director of Policy for Australia and New Zealand, Mia Garlick, said in a statement.

Social media companies, particularly giants Facebook and Google parent company Alphabet, are facing increasing worldwide scrutiny for the content being distributed on their platforms. The European Union recently passed legislation making online platforms liable for copyright infringement by their users. A recent report by The Guardian newspaper said the U.K. government is expected to unveil plans on Monday for an internet crackdown that, like the Australian legislation, would make social media executives personally liable for harmful content distributed on their platforms.