Why new laws are vital to help us control violence and extremism online

Only the law can hold internet companies criminally accountable.
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The terrorist attack in Christchurch is a horrific attack on society. We must consider all measures available to avoid something like this ever happening again, anywhere.

Now in Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison wants to introduce new criminal laws for social media companies that fail to quickly remove footage like that broadcast by the gunman in the New Zealand massacre. The alleged gunman live-streamed his activities on Facebook, and the footage was republished across many platforms in the days following.

Read more: Morrison flags new laws to stop social media platforms being ‘weaponised’

This is an indication that Australian leaders may now be prepared to move beyond just blaming technology for its role in the Christchurch massacre.

Laws are typically based on social values and social duties. However, penalties can of course only stem from violations of law – not violations of social duties – and it is governments that make law.

How is the internet regulated?

Internet platforms such as Facebook and Google are already subject to a complex web of laws stemming from around the globe.

A project at Stanford University has started mapping out this web of regulation.

The site points to several laws in Australia that apply to internet platforms. Of these, the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (Cth) is most relevant. But this is a largely untested legal provision providing certain protections for internet platforms handling content posted by users.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has indicated he aims to create laws that:

  • make it a criminal offence to fail to remove the offending footage as soon as possible after it was reported or it otherwise became known to the company
  • allow the government to declare footage of an incident filmed by a perpetrator and being hosted on a site was “abhorrent violent material”. It would be a crime for a social media provider not to quickly remove the material after receiving a notice to do so. There would be escalating penalties the longer it remained on the social media platform.

These laws would not prevent violent livestreaming from taking place in the first place, but if drafted carefully may help control its spread and impact.

Read more: Anxieties over livestreams can help us design better Facebook and YouTube content moderation

This is an important point, as there is a strong argument that banning live-streaming on the major platforms will not prevent terrorists live-streaming their acts via other outlets.

Along with Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, Attorney-General Christian Porter and Communications Minister Mitch Fifield, today the prime minister will meet withrepresentatives of Google, Facebook and Twitter and telcos including Telstra, Optus and Vodafone to discuss the responsibilities of social media companies when violence is streamed online.

Read more: Four ways social media companies and security agencies can tackle terrorism

Global examples for improving regulation

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