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Draft law seeks to tackle live-streamed hate

Peter Griffin, Contributor. 27 May 2020, 2:46 pm

Within weeks of the Christchurch mosque shootings, Australia passed legislation imposing criminal convictions and huge fines on social media giants that allow hate crimes to be live-streamed across their platforms.

It was a bold move that diverged from New Zealand's approach which was not to rush through legislation, but to build consensus among governments and technology companies such as Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook and Google to make voluntary changes and beef up content filtering efforts.

The Christchurch Call, led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, was a diplomatic coup. But some argue that the necessary behaviour change needs to be backed up with laws to hold the feet of the tech giants to the fire, as well as those individuals who are the source of the hate broadcast across their platforms.

Now a new Bill has been introduced into Parliament, aimed at giving the Christchurch Call at least some teeth at a local level. The Bill, introduced by Internal Affairs minister and New Zealand First MP Tracey Martin, would make live streaming of objectionable material a criminal offence and beef up the powers of the Chief Censor, allowing online content to be rapidly examined, classified and possibly ordered taken down.

Fines and prison time

Under the law, takedown notices could be issued to online content hosts, who would face a fine of up to $200,000 for failing to act on them swiftly. Individuals found to be live streaming objectionable material could be punished with up to 14 years in prison. Companies liable for the live streaming would face a $200,000 fine.

The Bill makes clear that safe harbour provisions in the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 would not apply to objectionable online content, though that is an issue that is likely to attract intense debate and legal scrutiny.

"It will ensure that online content hosts can be prosecuted for hosting objectionable content if they are liable for doing so," the Bill states. 

Still, the draft legislation doesn't suggest direct penalties for non-compliance by online providers that are as tough as the Australians laid out in their law.

Tougher across the Tasman

Across the Tasman for instance, a Facebook or Twitter allowing a repeat of the live streaming that horrified thousands of social media users last March in the immediate wake of the attack on the mosques, could draw criminal charges punishable by up to three years' imprisonment or fines worth up to 10 per cent of the platform's annual turnover.

Such explicit provisions would be strongly opposed by the operators of online platforms but are increasingly being considered around the world as regulators and governments seek to address issues related to tech companies and their approach to data protection, privacy and approaches dealing with hate speech and misinformation.

The most controversial aspect of the Bill may well be the proposal for a government-mandated content filtering system. This has been a pet project of Tracey Martin for years, as she has sought to protect minors from accessing explicit material such as internet pornography. 

Effective filtering?

The filtering system would be in addition to the Digital Child Exploitation Filtering System, internet providers implement on a voluntary basis to prevent access to sites hosting child pornography.

"Any filter established will be limited to addressing a specific form of objectionable content and would focus on web page filtering," the Bill reads. That could include violent material, but would put in place the framework for a filtering system that could also curtail access to online pornography. Governments around the world have struggled to introduce effective filtering systems for that purpose.

In a regulatory impact assessment of the draft legislation, the Department of Internal Affairs pointed out the potential risk that the Bill could be "inconsistent with the partnership approach agreed through the Christchurch Call".

That suggests Labour and the Prime Minister, in particular, will have to tread carefully in considering new legislation that holds peddlers of hate and the online platform owners to account, but also keeps big tech on side to complete a voluntary programme aimed at making their platforms safer.

Public consultation on the Bill will be sought as it progresses through Parliament. 



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