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Aussie Senate Rushes Thru Bill That Would Fine Social Media Companies For Not Taking Down 'Abhorrent' Content Fast Enough

Published: April 5, 2019
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Source: Tech Dirt

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Following the Christchurch mosque shooting, the New Zealand government swiftly declared footage and photos of the shooting illegal and started rounding up citizens who violated the censorship body's new declaration. The government of its closest neighbor has responded to the tragedy in a similar fashion, outlawing the sharing of "abhorrent violent material."

Tragedies make for bad laws. And Australia -- while relatively short on tragedy -- has been crafting some supremely bad laws lately. The national security flag was waved around a bit to justify encryption-breaking mandates. Now, the government has rushed through a bill targeting content like the Christchurch shooter's livestream of his violent act.

The Criminal Code Amendment (Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material) Bill 2019 has been loosely characterised as a crackdown on social media companies to prevent a recurrence of what transpired during the Christchurch massacre, where live video was streamed by the perpetrator and then shared by users.

But the text of the amendment [pdf] shows it takes a far wider brush than just to social media companies, instead hitting a wider range of online content storage and carriage service providers, with very few exceptions.

Abhorrent material is defined as relating to terrorism, murder, attempted murder, torture, rape or kidnapping.

This bill [PDF] was rushed through a Senate session with 18 other bills -- all of this accomplished in under 45 minutes. Such was the sense of urgency that Senate members voted sight unseen. Only one Senator even bothered asking for the text of the bill being voted on. It didn't matter. There was no text to be had at the time of the vote.

The bill demands the removal of "objectionable" content within a "reasonable amount of time." "Reasonable" isn't defined. The bill simply demands "expeditious removal" after notification and an initial fine of $168,000 for not being expeditious enough.

There's no legal definition of "expeditious" to rely on, so social media providers will apparently have to make do with the Attorney General's feelings.

[A]ttorney-General Christian Porter gave some indication during a televised briefing of how quickly individuals and companies might have to act.

“Using the Christchurch [massacre] example, I can't precisely say what would have been the point of time at which it would have been reasonable for [Facebook] to understand that this was live streaming on their site or playable on their site, and they should have removed it,” Porter said.

“But what I can say - and I think every Australian would agree - [is] it was totally unreasonable that it should exist on this site for well over an hour without them taking any action whatsoever.

So, tech companies have an hour to remove anything the Australian government claims is abhorrent, whether or not the content was uploaded by an Australian. If this vague deadline isn't met, the fines begin escalating. $168,000 is merely the starting point.

Individuals can be hit with a three-year jail term, up to $2.1 million in fines, or both. Companies meanwhile can face fines up to $10.5 million or 10 percent of their annual turnover.

The Attorney General is inordinately proud of his plan to fine and lock up tech company execs because of content their users posted. He calls it a "world first" and says it's supported by a "near unanimous view amongst Australians." This does not mean Australians were consulted while the bill was being drafted. There was also no input from tech companies which will have to respond "expeditiously" to a vague, overbroad directive.

The AG stands united with a bunch of people he didn't speak to while talking up a bill no Senators read before passing. What could possibly go wrong?

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