Australia Passes Law to Punish Social Media Companies for Violent Posts

Australia passed sweeping legislation Thursday that threatens huge fines for social media companies and jail for their executives if they fail to rapidly remove “abhorrent violent material” from their platforms.

The law — strongly opposed by the tech industry — puts Australia at the forefront of a global movement to hold companies like Facebook and YouTube accountable for the content they host.

It comes less than a month after a gunman, believed to be an Australian white nationalist, distributed a hate-filled manifesto online before using Facebook to live-stream the massacre of 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

“These platforms should not be weaponized for these purposes,” said Christan Porter, Australia’s attorney general, during a debate on the bill Thursday in the House of Representatives.

“Internet platforms must take the spread of abhorrent violent material online seriously,” he added.

Written quickly and without much input from technology companies or experts, the measure goes as far as any other democracy’s attempt to punish multinational tech platforms for the behavior of their users.

“This is most likely a world first,” Mr. Porter said, adding that “there was a near unanimous view among Australians that social media platforms had to take more responsibility for their content.”

The legislation criminalizes “abhorrent violent material,” which it defines as videos that show terrorist attacks, murders, rape or kidnapping. Social media companies that fail to remove such content “expeditiously” could face fines of up to 10 percent of their annual profit, and employees could be sentenced to up to three years in prison. Companies must also inform the police when illegal material is found.

The bill, even before it was introduced in the House of Representatives on Thursday, intensified an already heated global debate over free speech, violence and technology.

Australian media companies warned this week that the law could lead to the censorship of legitimate speech.

A consortium of the global tech superpowers, including Google, Facebook and Amazon, also argued that it would damage Australia’s relations with other countries because it would require “proactive” surveillance of all users worldwide, while criminalizing content reposted by users without the companies knowing about it.

“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 Sunita Bose, the managing director of the Digital Industry Group Inc., an advocacy group representing Facebook, Google and other companies.

“With the vast volumes of content uploaded to the internet every second,” Ms. Bose said, “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.”

In the Senate Wednesday night, Richard Di Natale, a senator in the Australian Greens party, said the process was being rushed. He blamed both Australia’s conservative government and the opposition Labor Party, which he characterized as compliant.

“We’ve got some of the most significant changes to social media online regulation that we have ever seen,” he said. And yet, with little or no time for public input, he added, “it’s going to be rammed through.”

Experts warned that the law — which is meant to reach beyond traditional social media to sites that have been hotbeds of white supremacy, like 4Chan — could lead to legal challenges. It’s not clear whether Australia would be able to take action against companies that do not have offices in the country, nor is it clear if it would have a right to impose profit-based penalties on international behemoths like Facebook.

The vague standard of removing content “expeditiously” — which would be decided by a jury, under the law — could also lead to extended battles, full of technical detail, over what should be reasonably expected from tech companies dealing with millions if not billions of users.

A similar law in Germany requires companies remove “obviously illegal” content within 24 hours, a more precise time frame that has nonetheless been challenging to meet.

[Read more about countries considering steps to regulate posts on social media.]

One problem, according to experts, is that banned posts, photos and videos continue to linger online because the platforms, using both human moderators and technology, have been unable to identify and remove every iteration of illegal content.

Susan Benesch, founder of the Dangerous Speech Project at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, said that Australia’s attempt to keep “abhorrent violent material” off the internet could face similar problems, leading to more dramatic responses from the platforms.

“It would likely encourage increased censorship and takedowns by companies,” she said. “The platforms would likely move their offices out of countries that pass such laws, to protect them from prosecution.”

Some lawmakers suggested that the legislation had been pushed through by Australia’s conservative government to avoid a far more difficult conversation about root causes of the Christchurch massacre: Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry.

“The fundamental evil we are seeking to eradicate is not the sharing of recordings, it is the violence itself,” said Mark Dreyfus, a Labor Party lawmaker from the state of Victoria, adding: “An attack on any religion is an attack on all religion.”

If Labor wins national elections expected in May, he said, the new government will revisit the law’s provisions with an eye toward the broader issue of hate speech, which is not covered by the legislation.

“The lack of consultation on this bill has meant that the government has not even considered the practical difficulties,” he said.

Mr. Porter, the attorney general, insisted that the details could be worked out. At a news conference after the law’s passage, he boasted that “this is mostly likely a world first.”

“There was an expectation that the government would move urgently,” he said, “which is precisely what we have done.”

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