The government’s new social media laws it plans to rush through Parliament this week are “heavy-handed and pointless”, according to former government digital lead Paul Shetler.
The federal government plans to this week introduce legislation that would introduce new fines and potential jail sentences for executives of tech companies that do not take down “abhorrent violent material” quickly enough.
The laws, which were announced in the wake of the Christchurch terrorist attack being livestreamed on Facebook, will be introduced to Parliament this week, the last sitting days before the May election.
The Criminal Code Amendment (Unlawful Showing of Abhorrent Violent Material) Bill 2019 is modelled on existing offences under the act which require tech platforms to notify police if their service is being used to access child pornography.
Under the amendments, tech platforms like Facebook will have to remove offensive content “expeditiously” after they are notified of its existence by the eSafety Commissioner.
The amendments include two new sets of offences, including a criminal offences for social media platforms that do not remove the offensive content quickly enough, punishable by a fine of up to 10 percent of the company’s annual turnover and three years’ imprisonment for executives.
A jury would decide whether the offending content was taken down quickly enough.
The other new offence is for a platform that doesn’t notify the AFP if they become aware that their service is being used to stream “abhorrent violent conduct” happening in Australia, punishable by fines of up to $168,000 for individuals and $840,000 for a corporation.
The new laws will force social media companies to “get their act together” and work with local Australian authorities, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.
“Big social media companies have a responsibility to take every possible action to ensure their technology products are not exploited by murderous terrorists. It should not just be a matter of just doing the right thing. It should be the law,” Mr Morrison said in a statement.
“This is about keeping Australians safe by forcing social media companies to step up and do what the community expects of them to stop terrorists and criminals.”
But former Digital Transformation Office boss Paul Shetler said the new laws risk going down the same path as the government’s AA Bill.
“This is like the AA bill again. This is putting something through in the last week of Parliament, and unfortunately you’re not hearing too many voices from Labor opposing it,” Mr Shetler told InnovationAus.com.
“It strikes me that this thing is so nakedly an election ploy to capitalise on outrage over what happened in Christchurch. I don’t believe for one minute that it’s going to stop anything from happening.”
The laws are being rushed through Parliament without any consultation, and could further damage the local tech sector, Mr Shetler said.
“We’re not having a calm, rational discussion about this. These are extreme proposals coming out – let’s not just go with the loudest voice in the room, we need to think about this and see what should be done. There’s been no consultation, it’s just been cooked up and sprung on Parliament and Labor too – that’s not really a democratic process,” he said.
“I think it’s going to hurt Australia’s already diminished standing in the tech world. On top of the AA bill, you’ve got political leaders coming out with these kind of Looney Tunes things like jailing tech execs – who is going to take us seriously after a certain point?”
The new laws are “heavy-handed” in their approach, and will be impossible to enforce on companies based outside of Australia, Mr Shetler said.
“The US is not going to be extraditing Mark Zuckerberg or any other person that runs any kind of message board or service. They’re not going to extradite American executives. Then they have Australian executives left, but if you look at Facebook’s own description of its business in Australia, they tell you they’re here to deal with Australian businesses – it’s a sales office,” he said.
“Facebook execs in Australia are not responsible for the operations of Facebook’s social media software, that’s all taking place in California. What’s the point in jailing people who had nothing to do with what you’re concentrating on? It’s almost medieval. It’s like taking hostages and saying that if something bad happens we’re going to kill them.”
The new powers also don’t recognise that the reporting of offensive content is overwhelmingly done by users of the platforms rather than government agencies or bodies like the eSafety Commissioner, he said.
“With Christchurch, it wasn’t the eSafety Commissioner or any government official that notified Facebook that those videos were up there. It was users who notified them, and as soon as they told Facebook, they started taking it down,” Mr Shetler said.
“On the one hand it’s a crazy and over the top threat which doesn’t really make any sense, and on the other hand I can’t really even see them stopping anything, because users are already reporting these things, and companies are already responding as quickly as they can.
“I’m not really quite sure what the government thinks it will get out of this besides some votes from people who don’t understand technology and feel angry.”
The implementation of the new punishments may mean that global tech companies avoid Australia entirely, he said.
“Most Australian subsidiaries of these companies don’t contribute 10 percent to Facebook’s global turnover. What they’re really doing with this is, just like the AA Bill, they’re disincentivising people from doing business in Australia,” Mr Shetler said.
“There’s a huge amount of risk introduced for companies potentially being slapped down even if they did the right thing. You have to question how many would want to continue operations with that financial risk.”
The new laws apparently have some level of backing from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who this week penned an op-ed for the Washington Post calling for regulators and governments to play a bigger role in controlling the content on platforms like Facebook.
Mr Zuckerberg said the onus for monitoring content on these platforms is too important for the companies to control by themselves, and called for new laws in four areas: harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability.
“Every day, we make decision about what speech is harmful, what constitutes political advertising and how to prevent sophisticated cyber-attacks. These are important for keeping our community safe. But if we were starting from scratch, we wouldn’t ask companies to make these judgements alone,” Mr Zuckerberg wrote.
“We have a responsibility to keep people safe on our services. That means deciding what counts as terrorist propaganda, hate speech and more. We continually review our policies with experts, but at our scale we’ll always make mistakes and decisions that people disagree with.”
“Lawmakers often tell me we have too much power over speech, and frankly I agree.”