Australia passes 'world first' legislation banning Facebook-streamed violence

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Australia passed legislation aimed at stopping violent crime and acts of extremism from being live-streamed on the internet despite warnings from the legal profession and technology companies that the new law is flawed.

The legislation, drafted in the wake of the deadly mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, that left 50 people dead, carries penalties of up to 10% of a company’s annual turnover and potential prison sentences of up to three years for executives of social-media companies who fail to expeditiously remove abhorrent violent material from their platforms.

Facebook came under sharp criticism for not taking down a video live-streamed by the alleged Christchurch gunman fast enough.

The bill, aimed at preventing the “weaponising” of social media platforms by terrorists and criminals, became law after passing the lower house on Thursday, the last sitting day before parliament dissolves ahead of elections next month. It cleared the upper house late Wednesday with no debate or amendments.

A Facebook spokeswoman declined to comment on the law.

Taking Action

“This is most likely a world first in terms of legislating the conduct of social media and online platforms,” Attorney-General Christian Porter told reporters after the legislation was passed. The law allows police to lay charges “where an organisation like Facebook lets something live-stream and play for a long period of time on their platform,” he said.

Australia’s measures come after Singapore announced plans to introduce tough new laws to hold online outlets accountable for the spread of fake news. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is calling for new global regulations for everything from hate speech online to privacy and data protection.

The Law Council of Australia says it’s concerned the Australian legislation “is being thought up on the run without any proper consultation.”

The council says it is not clear whether companies would be fined according to their global annual revenue, or on turnover generated in Australia - adding the legislation meant firms would be punished based on their size rather than the seriousness of the breach.

“Such an approach to penalties, if used as a precedent for other areas of government regulation, could have a chilling effect on businesses investing in Australia or providing their services in this country,” Arthur Moses, the council president, said in a statement.

Scott Farquhar, the billionaire co-founder of enterprise software company Atlassian, said the legislation should be properly scrutinised by a parliamentary committee.

“In its blind rush to legislate, the government is creating confusion and threatening jobs,” he said in a post on Twitter.

Firms’ Struggle

Andrew Bushnell, a research fellow at Melbourne free-market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, agreed that the legislation is flawed.

“Throwing media executives in jail will increase costs to taxpayers without improving community safety or addressing concerns about violent content being shared on social media platforms,” Bushnell said in an op-ed on the institute’s website. “This is a blatant attack on the freedom of the media to report on matters of public interest and goes well beyond what would be necessary to achieve the stated goal.”

Broadcasting of the Christchurch massacre is the latest example of social media companies’ struggle to keep offensive content from sites that generate billions of dollars in revenue from advertisers - a problem that’s seen Zuckerberg grilled by Congress.

In India - which is set to begin its federal election on April 11 - Facebook has announced it has enlisted five new organisations to help with fact-checking that will review news stories on the platform and rate their accuracy.

‘Ineffective’

The Digital Industry Group, an Australian consortium of tech companies whose members include Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon, on Friday slammed the country’s new legislation as ineffective and out of step with regulation in other democratic countries.

“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,” said DIGI’s managing director, Sunita Bose.

She said the law was at odds with so-called notice and take down regulations in the US and Europe that require firms to remove potentially illegal content only after they’re notified about problems.

By contrast, Canberra’s new regulation “encourages companies to proactively surveil user-generated content,” Bose added. “This is not how legislation should be made in a democracy like Australia.”

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