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In their keenness to avoid another massacre spreading on social media, our government passed a draconian bill without debate or consideration of its cause and effect…in a minute flat.
In retrospect, in a frenetic last week of the controversial 45th Parliament, it was weak of me to dismiss a major piece of defining legislation with this tweet: “Christchurch massacre internet live streaming bill rammed through the Senate last night was probably illegal. Not circulated on apps or in the chamber before the guillotine and the vote. I voted against it. Govt and Labor rammed it through. Media criticism is fair.”
And while I am on the mea culpa trail, it was actually “Senator for a day” Duncan Spender—the Lib Dems’ short-term replacement for David Leyonhjelm—who tried to blow the whistle as the Coalition, and a surprisingly compliant Labor Opposition, ruthlessly used the guillotine to prevent debate on bill after bill after bill.
Including this one.
I was sitting behind rookie senator Spender as he dashed back to his seat to wave his phone around and protest that the bill hadn’t even been circulated on the clerk’s app—let alone been circulated in the chamber—a fact confirmed by my own staff during a “what the fuck happened there?” post mortem later that night.
Spender knew his way around. He was a Leyonhjelm staffer who was parachuted in by the Lib Dem founder when Leyonhjelm figured his Senate re-election chances next month were slim and he’d be more secure grabbing an eight-year small pond sinecure in the NSW Upper House.
(A few hours earlier on that crucial day, on Pat Karvelas’ ABC TV show, I had confidently predicted that the streaming legislation would not go through that session because it was complicated, needed much debate and we would not want to vote for legislation that was clumsy or flawed. The Senate did vote that way despite such fears.)
To comprehend some senators’ frustration and anger over that rammed through legislation, I have to go back to that Friday lunch-hour horror when, on this side of the ditch, we first started hearing about the mosque massacre madness in Christchurch.
I was in my Melbourne apartment. Suddenly, on my laptop screen, an unprompted image appeared that looked like an amateur video from somebody’s iPhone. It started with boring, endless and tame road video of a car camera. I hadn’t called it up; hadn’t requested it. It was just there. I then sat, mesmerised, as an assassin parked his car, waved his autographed gun around and went on a killing spree.
I suspect millions of people around the globe saw that slaughter in real time. Saw the killer’s headgear camera recording every murder live. Saw him go back to his car for more bullets with his video picking up a young woman in Arabic dress lying dead or dying in the gutter near his getaway car. And when he did leave, heading for more carnage at the second mosque, he callously drove over her body.
I believe, after the Christchurch horror, that the government’s heart is in the right place, but this is draconian…the new legislation screams censorship.
The coalition government argued fiercely from early on, that Facebook and Google should have acted smarter, quicker, to get the offensive, grotesque video down. I don’t know. I’d watched it live. Un-ordered, un-anticipated, unwanted.
But then the Coalition government (aided by the Opposition) hit too hard, too fast.
Attorney-General Christian Porter argued that speed was necessary because “the tragedy in Christchurch just over two weeks ago brought this issue to a head”.
He justified the gag, and the speed of ramming it through the Senate, by claiming: “It was clear from our discussions last week with social media companies, particularly Facebook, that there was no recognition of the need for them to act urgently to protect their own users from the horror of the live streaming of the Christchurch massacre and other violent crimes and so the Morrison Government has taken action with this legislation.”
I told Porter that I agreed in principle to some of the measures he was proposing but it all sounded too broad, too rushed, and would have to be debated and, preferably, sent to a Senate committee for perusal and dissection. Didn’t happen.
The bill passed in about one minute.
This means that social media platforms, Internet providers and web hosting services are now liable to fines up to 10% of their annual global revenue and employees could be jailed, in Australia, for failing to quickly remove “abhorrent violent material”. There are also fines of up to $168,000 for individuals or $840,000 for companies if they fail to notify the federal police that such putrid material is streaming out of Australia on their service.
DIGI is the group that represents Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and other digital platforms. Managing director, Sunita Bose, albeit with a vested interest, put it well. She said: “This law, which was conceived and passed in five days without any meaningful consultation, does nothing to address hate speech, which was the fundamental motivation for the tragic Christchurch terrorist attacks…Let’s be clear: no one wants abhorrent content on their websites, and DIGI members work to take this down as quickly as possible.”
She went on to say that the “vast volumes” of content uploaded every second made it a complex problem that required discussions with legal experts, the media and the technology industry.
“That didn’t happen this week.”
I believe, after the Christchurch horror, that the government’s heart is in the right place, but this is draconian. The incoming government must refine this hasty law because the new legislation screams censorship. The Senate failed the country on this one.