The Major Consequences of Australia’s New Social Media Laws
In the wake of the Christchurch shootings and the disturbing video that made the rounds on social media afterward, Australia’s Government expeditiously passed new legislation that puts the onus on tech companies to remove violent material from their platforms or face criminal charges. Violent material extends to terrorist acts, murders, attempted murders, torture, rape or kidnap.
The ‘Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material’ bill provides Australia’s eSafety commission with unprecedented powers to deem what is suitable for public consumption and what is not. Under the bill, directors of social media companies could face personal liability and up to three years jail time. Fines imposed could be as high as 10 percent of a company’s global revenue. This should come as no surprise to Australians who are accustomed to exorbitant fines for petty offenses such as jaywalking ($60 fine), swearing (up to $500 fine) or not wearing a seatbelt ($298 fine).
Enforcing fines of the magnitude proposed by this bill could prove a little more difficult than slapping Bob with a $60 infringement ticket for crossing the road without the assistance of a flashing green man, or, flashing green person.
Australia’s attorney general, Christian Porter, boasted that “this is most likely a world first” in a television interview moments after the law passed. But here’s the thing about being first in a complex and ambiguous environment; more often than not it means that you’re probably wrong.
Jumping to Conclusions
As tech luminary and co-founder of PayPal and Palantir Technologies, Peter Thiel, says, when it comes to startup companies navigating uncertain environments, it is often the last mover that wins the market in the long-term; “Microsoft was the last operating system, and Google was the last search engine”. That is because last movers can learn from the inevitable mistakes and failures of others trying to navigate unchartered territories. And that is essentially what online censorship is — unchartered territory.
This is precisely why expeditiously introducing this legislation, without consulting industry, or thinking through the second, third and subsequent orders of consequence amount to nothing more than a knee-jerk, emotional reaction — not a rational decision. Not thinking through the subsequent orders of consequence is akin to kids failing the marshmallow test, unable to delay gratification for a mere 15 minutes in order to triple their keep of marshmallows!
History is littered with stories that warn of jumping to emotion-driven conclusions at the expense of reason; whether it was the Athenians marching into battle against Sparta 2,400 years ago, or numerous tech startups today whose founders proclaim that they’re going to “change the world” on Twitter, only to shut down 12 months later due to having spent all their funding on building products nobody asked for.
Of course, almost all of us were deeply disturbed by the Christchurch video and would welcome a world where such horror didn’t occur, to begin with, let alone get recorded and distributed online. Still, my emotions and the collective emotional temperament of Australians across the country shouldn’t be the single determining factor in whether or not to pass this bill.
This bill amounts to an oversimplified solution to a very complex problem. In order to understand something complex one must take a reductionist view; break things down into its component parts, understand those parts, and then put them back together. Unfortunately, it seems Australian politicians did nothing of the sort, by circumventing the usual due diligence they extend to proposed bills. Forget Occam’s razor, complex problems require complex thinking.
Extreme ideologues too are plagued by a simplistic, black and white perception of the social world. Again, Australia’s politicians demonstrated the kind of thinking reserved for young children whose world is categorised into black and white, or that of extreme radicals on either side of the political spectrum.
What This Means for Tech Companies
This is devastating news for companies that host user-generated content. Think social media, blogging, video and podcast platforms, dating apps, gaming platforms, chatrooms, forums and so on.
Co-founder of Australian tech behemoth Atlassian, Scott Farquhar, said of the move that “never has petty party politics so clearly been on display. The ALP agreed it was flawed but supported it anyway (WTF?). We elect officials to do what’s best for the country, but they are point scoring instead. I’m calling on the government to send this legislation to a committee for due diligence and consult properly with industry. In its blind rush to legislate, the government is creating confusion and threatening jobs.”
And jobs being threatened is where those aforementioned subsequent orders of consequence begin.
These consequences begin with jobs and extend to:
- Companies opting not to incorporate or establish themselves in Australia
- Companies opting to leave
- Companies opting to forego serving content to Australians, and therefore exclude Australians from global conversations, including the collaboration and innovation that the online world fosters (for more on this, see Google Stadia)
- A significant increase in the cost of surveillance for companies who choose to operate in Australia
- The adverse impact on Australian innovation more broadly (see below) is heightened thanks to the new risks the bill presents for directors, as well as the suppression of open-source, decentralised platforms that drive innovation on a global scale
- Whistleblowers may no longer be able to deploy social media to shine a light on atrocities committed around the world because social media companies will be required to remove certain content for fear of being charged with a crime; and
- Censorship of the media, thanks to the astronomical powers it provides the eSafety Commission
As Andrew Bushnell, of the Melbourne-based Institute of Public Affairs, put it, “this is a blatant attack on the freedom of the media to report on matters of public interest and goes well beyond what would be necessary to achieve the stated goal”.
The nature of many of today’s innovations, no less digital innovations, is that they are open-source and decentralised. They offer a welcome departure away from the once centralised nature of media where we all had to drink, whether we liked it or not, from the same fountain, no matter how polluted the water was with junk reality TV shows and Eddie McGuire.
In a world full of media influenced by political and commercial interests, platforms give everybody a voice and support the free exchange of ideas online. For example, podcasts, which 3.5 million Australians listen to.
This bill threatens your favourite podcasts for inadvertently not complying to requests to remove content in a timely manner, or for the sheer fact that monitoring every single conversation on a platform like Apple Podcasts (28 million episodes published as at February 2018) is too burdensome and costly a task, and platforms may choose to opt out of Australia altogether. Not only that, but censoring the nature of conversations, is perhaps not a task that the eSafety commission is up to, given previous struggles to reconcile interests in this space that go back, far beyond the YouTube demonetisations of today, to the pioneering days of the PMRC.
Decentralisation and Innovation
But it’s not just media. Open-source has given us platforms such as Linux(which powers the servers that run 96.5 percent of the top one million domains in the world), Apache (the world’s most popular web server) or libraries like Wikipedia (which boasts over 29 million articles, compared to 40,000 for the print version of Encyclopedia Britannica). Not to mention application programming interfaces (APIs) which allow different applications to essentially talk to each other, giving upand coming startups and innovators powers far beyond their capacities in a centralised world. And then there’s blockchain.
Decentralisation has essentially become the lifeblood of digital innovation in so many ways.
In his book, New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World, Jeremy Heimans considers the difference between old power structures and new, with new being characterised by open source collaboration, crowd wisdom and sharing.
Similarly, Tim O’Reilly, chief protagonist behind the open source movement and founder of O’Reilly Media, says that the business model of the future is characterised by, amongst other things, decentralisation.
This new bill puts Australia at odds with the technological and economic realities of not only the day, but the future, which could have devastating consequences insofar as our global competitiveness is concerned, something Australia can ill afford given the already waning resources sector; again, this should come as no surprise to entrepreneurs in the country who are used to exorbitant company tax rates, ridiculously slow internet, a limiting skilled migration visa program, and cuts to R&D tax concessions.
A Technical and Social Problem
Despite the efforts of companies such as Facebook to monitor and remove offending content, hiring 20,000 people to its safety and security team, scale remains a major issue in filtering online content. Users add more than 6 hours of video to YouTube alone, every single second. Facebook users create 3.2 billion likes and comments every single day.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (who himself has posted on Twitter over 7,000 times) said that “big social media companies have a responsibility to take every possible action to ensure their technology products are not exploited by murderous terrorists. It should not just be a matter of just doing the right thing. It should be the law”.
Unfortunately, hiring enough people to patrol this kind of volume is prohibitive, and AI algorithms can’t accurately discern between intent or motive and are essentially subject to the biases of their creators, so doing ‘the right thing’ is first, subject to interpretation, and second, almost impossible.
Freedom of Speech
This topic is about more than just removing nasty content from the internet. It’s a very slippery slope to censorship of the media, and by giving the eSafety commission the power to notify tech companies of offensive material, they are ultimately given a digital muzzle, to use it as they deem fit, in accordance with their own biases and political ideologies.
Without articulating the specifics around what a violation entails, and providing reasonable terms that tech companies can actually comply with, this is not a question of freedom of the media or Australia’s competitiveness alone, but freedom of speech more broadly, as it extends to anybody who posts content online.
And that is something that I’m sure all Australians, no matter how emotionally charged they were after witnessing the cowardice in Christchurch, will agree is something worth preserving.