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New Australian social media laws are 'knee-jerk' reaction, NZ experts say

Steven Walton

Australia has introduced legislation to punish social media companies that don't remove "abhorrent violent" material, but New Zealand experts say the move is a 'knee-jerk' reaction to terrorism.

Australia has passed legislation to imprison or fine social media companies if they fail to remove violent content from their platform.

The bill, which came into law on April 4, is a direct reaction to the Christchurch shootings on March 15th, where the suspected gunman used Facebook to live stream his massacre for 17 minutes.

"Big social media companies have a responsibility to take every possible action to ensure their technology products aren't exploited by murderous terrorists," Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Saturday. 

Social media companies in Australia that don't remove violent content quickly now face either three years imprisonment or a fine of up to 10% of the company's annual turnover.  

However a member of Internet NZ and a Christchurch lawyer both described the harsh punishments as "knee-jerk" legislation. 

 "While it was obvious about some of the challenges the Christchurch incident pushed into our eyes, the solutions to that I don't think are obvious at all," Internet NZ Outreach and Engagement Director Andrew Cushen said.

He said the Australian Government's approach with imposing fines "risks being premature".

jonathan forsey
Special Counsel Jonathan Forsey says Australia has rushed its new laws enforcing tougher punishments on social media companies. Steven Walton

Duncan Cotterill Special Counsel Jonathan Forsey, who specialises in technology related aspects of the law, agreed with this point. 

He said the new law "runs the risk of being the only thing that's done, rather than something proper being done".

Forsey described the new legislation as rushed and very poorly drafted. 

Social media companies need to put more resources into monitoring content, he said, adding: "If they are proactive and prevent this stuff from coming out, that makes it a lot easier for everybody."

"I think once the material is available on the internet ... it's almost too late at that stage," he said. 

Digital Industry Group Inc (DIGI), which represents Facebook, Google, and Twitter in Australia, said in a statement that content moderation was a "highly complex problem."

DIGI Managing Director Sunita Bose said solving the problem requires consultation with the technology industry, legal experts, the media and civil society. 

"That didn’t happen this week," Bose said.