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Explainer: Why the current government should improve the Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material bill.

BY Rebecca Borg / La Trobe University / Bachelor of Communications (Journalism) | 20-Dec-2019
The truth behind the new legislation and why the Liberal Party should revise it. @rebeccaaborg #themoderndaytypewriter #SharingOfAbhorrentViolentMaterialBill #Liberalparty #criminalisingabhorrentmaterial #upstartexplainers #legalissuesinjournalism #socialmedia #christchurchterrorattack
Why the current government should improve the Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material bill.
"Social Media 01" flickr photo by Rosaura Ochoa https://flickr.com/photos/rosauraochoa/3256859352 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Along with the evolution of the technological era, the media has also revolutionised in order to adapt to new and emerging digital technologies. This is nothing new for the media landscape as over time we have had to modify the way we tell news over an array of platforms. Despite newspaper, radio and television still existing in the modern day media world, the internet is the most powerful. Stories are distributed faster than first thought, with communications between the news writer and reader only a click of a button away and available to a world-wide audience. However, despite the sensational speed that the internet gives to the media, there are significant pitfalls of this medium that change the role of the journalist and newsreader, exposing the media world to issues never thought to be anticipated.

One of these issues include the posting and publication of inappropriate photo and video content onto platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat. By inappropriate we mean content that may appear disturbing, offensive or unsuitable to a general audience. Just like news, visual content can be published to online mediums instantly and can be viewed, liked and shared within seconds of being exposed online. The posting of such content never really made its way into the spotlight unless the content featured someone well-known or if the content published didn’t abide by the law. Instead, social media companies quickly swept the content ‘under the rug’, removing it as soon as it was reported.

However, upon an incident that occurred earlier in the year regarding the livestreaming of the Christchurch terrorist attack, the Australian government have introduced a new initiative that focuses on instant removal and punishment following the publication of such content. A bill was proposed and passed that any harmful content posted to a platform is to be removed instantly otherwise the platform’s company itself would be punished. Although this new bill seems like a great way to prevent the publication of inappropriate content, there are a number of issues that arise within this new legislation, painting the bill as a ‘quick fix’ to an even bigger problem.

What exactly is this new legislation?

After the livestreaming of the Christchurch attack that occurred on 15 March, earlier this year, parliament took a stance against the publication and distribution of violent videos and audio. The legislation “criminalises abhorrent violent material” including footage of terrorist attacks, murders, rapes and kidnappings, forcing social media companies to promptly remove such content. A jury is then to decide if the content was removed quickly enough. If the company fails to expeditiously remove the content, they may face fines of up to 10 per cent of their annual profit with employees facing jailtime for up to three years.

The new legislation also states that the Australian Federal Police (AFP) is to be contacted immediately by the company as soon as they realise that a user has published such content to their platform. Failure to do this will incur a fine of up to $168,000 for individuals and $840,000 for a corporation.

This bill was passed on the 3 April 2019, in the final sitting days of the May election.

As published in an article by InnovationAus.com, Prime Minister Scott Morrison believes that the bill will “force social media companies to ‘get their act together’”.

“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 to InnovationAus.com.

Alternately, prior to the election, Labor was in support of the bill but acknowledged that there was room for improvement. According to a transcript of the second reading of the bill, Mark Dreyfus, a Labor Party member, acknowledged that if elected in the upcoming election, at the time, Labor would revisit and improve the bill as it had its flaws.

"Labor believes that social media companies must do more in preventing the dissemination of material produced by terrorists showing off their crimes," said Mark Dreyfus, a Labor Party member, according to transcripts.

"But I must be clear: This bill is clumsy and flawed in many respects."

How long does the platform have to remove the content before being penalised?

The new legislation states that any abhorrent violent material must be removed expeditiously after they are notified of its existence by the eSafety Commissioner. However, there is no set timeframe. It is generally accepted that the content would be removed within an hour of the content being published and once the platform itself has been notified of its publication. Alternately, others believe that the bill should be adapted to meet similar standards to a law in Germany that aims to remove “obviously illegal” content within 24 hours.

What are the pitfalls of the bill?

Although this new legislation attempts to prevent the publication of violent and inappropriate content, the current bill itself has a number of pitfalls. Upon reading the Criminal Code Amendment (Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material) Bill 2019, instantly you realise that the criteria is vague and the bill itself lacks in its approach to be a suitable punishment.

The bill fails to:

  • Punish the original publisher of the content.
  • Define an appropriate time frame that highlights how long a company has to remove content.
  • Punish the distribution of hate speech.
  • Acknowledge that the new bill risks Australia’s relationship with other countries as they have different laws and rights regarding free speech, i.e. America.
  • Consider advice from tech companies and experts.
  • Acknowledge that as a result of the new legislation, international companies may be encouraged to increase censorship or instead prevent Australian users from accessing their platform in order to prevent the chance of prosecution.

Scott Farquhar, chief executive of Atlassian, agrees that abhorrent content on the internet is something no one wants to see. However, Farquhar agrees that the legislation itself is flawed and may pose an unwanted threat to jobs and consequently damage the tech industry. In a Twitter post on the 3 April 2019, Farquhar tweeted, “The current legislation means that anyone working for a company that allows user generated content could potentially go to jail for [three] years.”

“As written, that applies to news sites, social media sites, dating sites, job sites – anywhere user content could be created.”

As the bill itself seems to leave many questions unanswered, we are left to wonder what exactly an “expeditious” removal means or who exactly will be punished within the company. There appears to be no set definitions or a clear cut description about what exactly is in breach of this legislation, this in turn reducing its overall effectiveness.

What can we do as media users and consumers to prevent the distribution of abhorrent content? Although the bill in itself appears to be vague and flawed, it is still a step in the right direction. The legislation initiates a stance against the publication of abhorrent content and encourages others to recognise that the publication of such content is unacceptable.

Simple ways you can assist in the removal and prevention of the publication of inappropriate content includes:

  • • Reporting the image, video, audio or comment to the platform instantly upon viewing it, this helping in the efficient removal of the content and simultaneously lowering the chances of fines or imprisonment for the company of the platform.
  • Report or send a complaint regarding any inappropriate content to the eSafety Commissioner.
  • Discourage others from posting content that may seem inappropriate or violate the Criminal Code Amendment (Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material) Bill 2019.