Australia could jail social media chiefs for three years for streaming violence in wake of Christchurch terror attack

Facebook Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Australia's parliament has voted in favour of legislation which could imprison social media chiefs if their platforms stream acts of violence similar to the New Zealand mosque shooting.

In the wake of the Christchurch attack, where the attacker broadcast his horrific crimes on Facebook, the conservative government in Australia pushed through the new legislation to clamp-down on social media platforms who facilitate the streaming of violence.

Critics claimed the new laws could have unforeseen consequences which could lead to media censorship and reduced investment in Australia.

Armed police in Christchurch following the terror attack last month Credit: AP

Australia's government pushed through the legislation on the last two days of parliament before elections, expected to be held in May, meaning that the usual procedure of a committee scrutinising the bill was missed.

“Together we must act to ensure that perpetrators and their accomplices cannot leverage online platforms for the purpose of spreading their violent and extreme propaganda — these platforms should not be weaponised for evil,” attorney general Christian Porter told parliament while introducing the bill.

Mark Dreyfus, from the centre-left Labour party, pledged his support to the bill. If his opposition party wins the election, the law would be reviewed by a parliamentary committee.

According to the new legislation, it is a crime for social media platforms not to remove “abhorrent violent material” quickly.

If found guilty, the crime is punishable by three years in prison and a fine of 10.5 million Australian dollars (£5.6 million), or 10% of the platform’s annual turnover, whichever is larger.

Acts of terror, murder, attempted murder, torture, rape and kidnapping are defined as abhorrent violent material under the law.

The footage must be recorded by the perpetrator or an accomplice for the law to apply.

Digital platforms in other countries could face find of up to 840,000 dollars (£450,500) if they fail to notify Australian Federal Police about the streaming of abhorrent material which was occurring in Australia.

The bill could potentially undermine Australia’s security co-operation with the US by requiring American internet providers to share content data with Australian Federal Police, in breach of US law, Mr Dreyfus said.

An attempt by the minor Greens and independent legislators to have the vote scrutinised by a parliamentary committee was rejected.

The Digital Industry Group — an association representing the digital industry in Australia including Facebook, Google and Twitter — said taking down abhorrent content was a “highly complex problem” that required consultation with a range of experts, which the government had not done.

“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,” the group’s managing director Sunita Bose said.

“This creates a strict internet intermediary liability regime that is out of step with the notice-and-takedown regimes in Europe and the United States, and is therefore bad for internet users as it encourages companies to proactively surveil the vast volumes of user-generated content being uploaded at any given minute,” she added.

Arthur Moses, president of the Australian Law Council, said the legislation could lead to media censorship and prevent whistleblowers from using social media to shine a light on atrocities because of media companies’ fear of prosecution.

“Media freedom and whistleblowing of atrocities here and overseas have been put at risk by the ill-informed live-stream laws passed by the Federal Parliament,” he said.

Executives of Facebook, Google, Twitter, internet service providers and Australian phone companies met prime minister Scott Morrison and three ministers last week to discuss social media regulation.

Communications minister Mitch Fifield said Facebook “did not present any immediate solutions to the issues arising out of the horror that occurred in Christchurch”.