Australia Passes Law Penalizing Social Media Companies For Violent Posts

Critics, including tech companies, say the measure is a rushed response to the New Zealand mosque shootings.

Australia passed legislation Thursday that puts the onus on social media companies to remove violent posts from their platforms ― or they could face massive fines and even prison for executives.

The law, which forces companies like Facebook and Twitter to quickly remove “abhorrent violent material,” follows the mosque shootings in New Zealand last month that were livestreamed on Facebook and quickly disseminated before they were deleted.

The measure was quickly drafted without much input from tech companies or the general public, according to The New York Times. It criminalizes videos that show terrorist attacks, murders, rape or kidnapping, and social media companies that don’t remove the material “expeditiously” face massive fines of up to 10 percent of their annual profit. Executives could be sentenced up to three years in prison.

But critics ― including the tech companies ― say the law is too vague.

Sunita Bose, managing director of an advocacy group representing Facebook, Google and others, told the Times lawmakers didn’t spend nearly enough time defining what content falls into criminal territory.

“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,” Bose said.

Mark Dreyfus, a Labor Party member, worried that the new measure would push social media companies to further surveil users, to the point of breaching security.

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.

It’s unclear how Australia plans to enforce the new law, and whether it would go beyond its own borders to take legal action against companies that don’t have offices in the country.

“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 — that didn’t happen this week,” Bose said.

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