The Australian government has passed new laws allowing internet services providers to block domains that promote “harmful and extreme” content.
Authorities have accepted new recommendations from the final Digital Platforms Inquiry report — empowering telecommunications companies to restrict access to specific websites hosting ‘extremist content’.
Australia will allow telecommunications companies to block access to internet domains hosting ‘extremist content’ during crisis events, and will consider legislation to force digital platforms to “improve the safety of their services”.
The Criminal Code Amendment (Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material) Act 2019 has been passed, applying to all media organisations “host violent, abhorrent material” on their websites.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who was recently in France to take part in the G7 leaders’ forum, said the government intended to “prevent extremists from exploiting digital platforms to post extremely violent content” by enacting new measures.
Recently, recommendations from the final report of the Digital Platforms Inquiry were published, where the ACCC detailed measures needed to take to ‘protect’ content online.
The penalties are steep: for natural persons, it’s three years prison and/or a $2.1 million fine, and for a corporation, it’s a fine of $10.5m or 10% of turnover, whichever is greater.
Speaking with reporters this week, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher detailed the new laws and the target of measures to prevent the spread of graphic material:
“The new blocking arrangements would give telcos the legal backing to address fringe websites that wilfully host abhorrent violent material and refuse to engage constructively with government.”
What about journalists reporting controversial content in the means of public interest?
Despite the crackdown, the federal government has ruled out blocking access to mainstream social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter, although they are set to go after other websites hosting violent material or terrorism content.
If social media is exempt — who will be included on potential blacklists for content?
Australia’s eSafety commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, spoke with the press this week and said the new powers will be applied “on a case- by-case basis”.
“Any such power will be exercised with great discretion and will target those sites that are not actively cooperating or removing the content.”
A 24/7 Crisis Coordination Centre is set to be established to monitor the online world for extreme violence or terrorist material, a spokesperson said.
Tech giants including Facebook, YouTube, Amazon, Microsoft and Twitter, along with Telstra, Vodafone, TPG and Optus, are expected to provide details to the government by the end of next month on how they will carry out the recommendations.
The Morrison government set up a taskforce to establish a framework for blocking violent content during future crises following the Christchurch shooting event in March.
The Christchurch terror attack sparked a backlash after live footage from the accused gunman’s massacre spread online after being streamed on social media.
Following the event, Australian internet service providers begun blocking access to websites used to host footageof the Christchurch attack, including 4chan, 8chan, Liveleak, Voat and ZeroHedge.
Telstra, Vodafone and Optus announced that various websites would be restricted under ‘sensitive material guidelines’, in a move that had many concerned about growing systems of mass censorship.
According to reports, internet users in Australia have been blocked from accessing a number of sites that are hosting or streaming material related to the Christchurch shooting — with many still remaining unaccessible.
Nikos Katinakis, Telstra Networks and IT Executive, commented on the concerns:
“We appreciate that it is necessary to ensure free speech is carefully balanced against protecting the community — but with these sites continuing to host disturbing content we feel it is the right thing to do to block them.”
A warning was issued from Prime Minister Morrison to social media giants ‘promoting’ violence, leading to laws being enacted that make it a criminal offence for companies that do not take down videos showing abhorrent violent content.
The moves have left many privacy and civil liberty advocates concerned about a continuing trends towards censorship, restriction and blacklisting in the digital realm.
Freedom of speech and freedom of expression are indispensable conditions for the full development of the person, and they are essential for any democratic society.
It is a fundamental common law right. The right to freedom of opinion is the right to hold opinions without interference, and cannot be subject to any exception or restriction.
However, the context of this principle in Australia is almost an individually unique one, because, unlike modern western democracies, this country lacks a national bill of rights and does not have such rights enshrined into our national constitution.
Instead, in its place, a complex and varied legislative and administrative regime has developed, where elements largely compete with each other for prevailing viewpoints in legal circumstances.
This loophole is what has given rise to the highly-debated Section 18C amendment to the Racial Discrimination Act – making it unlawful to “offend, insult or humiliate” a person.
The shift from prohibiting speech that incites violence to speech that offends or insults was a significant, and set a precedent in the move towards censoring ‘unfavorable’ opinions.
The continued lack of personal securities in Australia has led to the rise of many draconian spying and monitoring mechanisms over the last two decades, including the passing of controversial anti-encryption legislation.
Telstra and Vodafone’s similarly-timed decision and wording seemed like a coordinated response, driven by law enforcement or regulators.
The moves had campaigners concerned that the blocking was a smokescreen to set a censorship precedent, beginning to regulate information on the public internet under the guise of ‘sensitivity’.
This seemed to be exactly the case. What will the future hold for the open internet?
Stay tuned for more.
Criminal Code Amendment (Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material) Act 2019 | Legislation.gov.au