- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 4, 2019

Australian lawmakers on Thursday passed a bill that punishes internet companies for failing to promptly purge their platforms of “abhorrent violent material,” placing new responsibilities on social media providers as a direct result of last month’s mosque shootings in nearby Christchurch, New Zealand.

Opposed by stakeholders in Silicon Valley, the bill swiftly passed the Australian House of Representatives a day after finding similar success in the Senate in spite of criticism from opponents who labeled it a rushed response to the March 15 massacre, footage of which was partly broadcast live on Facebook and subsequently shared on other services.

“The objective of the Bill is to address significant gaps in Australia’s current criminal laws by ensuring that persons who are internet service providers, or who provide content or hosting services, take timely action to remove or cease hosting abhorrent violent material when it can be accessed using their services,” stated an explanatory memorandum issued by Christan Porter, Australia’s attorney general, who called the bill “likely a world first.”

Violations of the legislation carry penalties ranging from hefty fines for companies, to up to three years imprisonment for their executives.

“This will ensure that online platforms cannot be exploited and weaponized by perpetrators of violence,” Mr. Porter’s memo said.

Seventeen minutes of the New Zealand rampage was livestreamed on Facebook, and video of that footage was successfully shared another 300,000 times by other users within the following 24 hours, the social network said previously.

New Zealand criminalized possession and distribution of the video late last month, and several internet companies, including Facebook, have recently announced new efforts meant to prevent their platforms from amplifying extremism.

The Counter Extremism Project, an NGO co-founded by former diplomat Mark Wallace, applauded the Australian bill as “pioneering” and urged other countries to follow suit.

“It’s evident that tech’s desire for self-regulation is failing, and governments must step in to ensure that the proper measures are in place to protect its citizens from the ongoing misuse of Internet sites and platforms,” said Mr. Wallace, an ambassador to the United Nations for the U.S. under former President George W. Bush.

Critics from Silicon Valley to Canberra were quick to raise concerns with the bill, however, including its consequences for U.S. companies and its rushed consideration by lawmakers in the Australian legislature.

“It expects a wide range of companies to be proactively aware if their services are being misused at any given moment and criminalizes them if they do not remove relevant content, even if they remain unaware of it,” said the Digital Industry Group, a trade group that represents U.S. internet companies including Facebook, Google and Twitter in Australia.

“Furthermore, it appears to automatically criminalize such companies if content is reposted to their services, without any opportunity to rectify,” the group wrote in a letter, the Financial Times reported.

“Laws formulated as a knee-jerk reaction to a tragic event do not necessarily equate to good legislation and can have myriad unintended consequences,” said Arthur Moses, the head of the Australian Law Council.

Material considered “abhorrent violent” under the law include images, audio and video of crimes including murder, attempted murder, rape and kidnapping. It provides exemptions for public officials, journalists, and researchers.

Fifty people died and dozens were injured as a result of the Christchurch shootings. An Australian man is being held by New Zealand authorities on related charges.

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