Australia will fine social media companies up to 10 percent of their annual global turnover and imprison executives for up to three years if violent content is not removed “expeditiously”.
The new law, passed by the country’s parliament on Thursday, is in response to the attack by a self-confessed white supremacist on two mosques in Christchurch in New Zealand on March 15, killing 50 people as they attended Friday prayers.
The gunman broadcast his attack live on Facebook and it was widely shared for over an hour before being removed, a timeframe Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison described as unacceptable.
“Together we must act to ensure that perpetrators and their accomplices cannot leverage online platforms for the purpose of spreading their violent and extreme propaganda – these platforms should not be weaponized for evil,” Attorney-General Christian Porter told Parliament while introducing the bill.
The passing of the law means it is now an offence in Australia for companies, such as Facebook Inc. and Alphabet’s Google, which owns YouTube, not to remove any videos or photographs that show murder, torture or rape without delay.
Companies must also inform Australian police within a “reasonable” timeframe.
“It is important that we make a very clear statement to social media companies that we expect their behavior to change,” Mitch Fifield, Australia’s minister for communications and the arts, told reporters in Canberra after the law was passed on the parliament’s last sitting day before elections in May.
Juries will decide whether companies have complied with the timetable.
A Google spokesperson declined to comment on the legislation specifically but said the company has already taken action to limit violent content on its platforms.
Last week, Facebook said it was exploring restrictions on who was able to access their live-video streaming service, depending on factors such as previous violations of the site’s community standards.
Australia’s opposition Labor party backed the legislation, but said it would consult the technology industry over possible amendments if it got to power.
An attempt by the minor Greens party and independent legislators to have the vote scrutinized by a parliamentary committee was rejected.
Critics of the legislation said the government moved too quickly, without proper consultation and consideration.
“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, head of the Australian Law Council.
“Whistleblowers may no longer be able to deploy social media to shine a light on atrocities committed around the world because social media companies will be required to remove certain content for fear of being charged with a crime.”