Could Australia’s tough new social media law be echoed in Europe?

5 Apr 2019

Australian parliament, Canberra. Image: © Taras Vyshnya/

Australian lawmakers have passed tough legal measures to hold social media giants accountable for violent and disturbing content. This should have a chilling effect on online giants across the world.

Just weeks after the massacre of 50 people at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, the government of Australia has voted to pass a criminal law requiring social media platforms to remove “abhorrent” content that shows kidnapping, murders, rape or terrorist attacks.

Failure to do so “expeditiously” could result in fines of up to 10pc of annual profits and/or the jailing of executives for up to three years.

The effects of such a law and the likelihood that it could be echoed around the world should have a chilling effect on the leadership of internet giants such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who went on a charm offensive in Dublin earlier this week (2 April) meeting politicians and selected media.

The new law was written rapidly and with little or no input from the all-powerful tech industry. A world first, indeed.

Remembering Christchurch

In the aftermath of the Christchurch killings, the sense of horror over what happened vied with universal disgust at how the killer was able to livestream his actions to the world. Facebook said it removed 1.5m videos of the attack, 1.2m at upload, but within hours footage still remained on Facebook as well as Instagram, WhatsApp and Google’s YouTube.

It prompted a debate about the role technology had played in the attack.

Will the rapid passing of the new law be replicated by governments around the world? Very likely. Will such a law as that passed by Australia be similarly passed in Europe? We will have to wait and see.

It is up to most countries to decide for themselves. At an EU level, things move slowly in Brussels – but when they move, they move fast. GDPR, which Facebook lobbyists apparently tried to derail, is now being held up by Facebook and Zuckerberg as exactly the kind of legislation that will keep all tech giants honest.

On Monday (1 April), Zuckerberg – who is still reeling from the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal, numerous breaches and a catastrophic leak of 540m users’ details by a third-party developer – issued a plea for governments and regulators to help rein in the internet, including Facebook. “Lawmakers often tell me we have too much power over speech, and frankly I agree. I’ve come to believe that we shouldn’t make so many important decisions about speech on our own.”

In doing so, he echoed a sentiment made by the inventor of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee, in recent weeks: that by updating the rules for the internet, “we can preserve what’s best about it”.

A chilling effect

In a way, the new Australian law and the fact that Facebook has so many functions in Ireland – a small country on the edge of Europe but at the centre of the global internet industry – puts the country in a very interesting position.

Already, its Data Protection Commissioner and its courts have been at the centre of pivotal legal battles, some still ongoing, which have seen the end of Safe Harbour and the start of Privacy Shield, for example.

Facebook has a massive operation in Ireland, including a giant data centre park, and it employs 4,000 people with another 1,000 jobs on the way.

The Irish establishment has been smarting in recent weeks over an investigation that was published by The Observer newspaper revealing a sophisticated lobbying operation by Facebook to influence legislation in hundreds of countries.

It was reported that Facebook lobbied politicians across Europe – including former UK chancellor George Osborne; former Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny, TD; and dozens of other politicians, US senators and European commissioners – to try and head off GDPR legislation, which became law in May last year, and which Facebook feared would be “overly restrictive”.

The report made inflammatory claims that Kenny was described in the documents as being among “friends of Facebook” who could exercise significant influence during the presidency of the EU to promote the company’s interests.

Why does the Australian law make it an interesting time for Ireland? Well, here’s my two cents: Ireland is creating a new Online Safety Commissioner role that is modelled on similar positions that have been established in New Zealand and Australia.

Already, some critics have scorned the creation of the role as being potentially more of a poodle with limited powers rather than a watchdog with real teeth. Huge fines and potential prison time are the kind of real teeth that would force any well-heeled executive to pay attention.

Sentiment is shifting, and Ireland may either be first or could eventually follow other countries in Europe that may echo the tough example set by Australia.

The times are indeed a-changing.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years