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“In early April, in the anxious days of mourning after the massacres at two New Zealand mosques, the Australian government passed what it called the Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material bill. The hastily drafted law called for fines of up to 10 percent of annual revenue or three years of jail time for technology executives whose companies fail to “expeditiously” take down abhorrent content. According to The Guardian, objectionable content would include “videos depicting terrorist acts, murders, attempted murders, torture, rape or kidnap.”
It’s unclear how quickly companies are expected to take down content. Australian politicians have spoken of a “reasonable” timeframe being perhaps an hour after a major event. A similar German law allows for a 24-hour grace period before issuing fines of up to 50 million euro; the European Parliament is currently considering a law that would allow for only an hour. Industry groups fretted that the law was cobbled together too quickly, and could implicate almost any employee of a tech platform. An opposition party promised revisions to the law should it come to power.
Regardless of how Australia’s law is implemented, it could lead to complex legal disputes. What constitutes “abhorrent” speech? And to what extent can national governments exert sovereignty over our communications platforms? Zoom out and you see a liberal democracy struggling with how to respect speech rights while also protecting its citizens from harmful or inciting material promulgated on tech platforms over which they only have partial jurisdiction. How do we apply government protections to environments without borders, entirely controlled by private corporations? The answer isn’t clear, particularly since these companies style themselves as public squares, pseudo-political entities unto themselves with a responsibility to offer opportunities for (some kind of) free expression. What is clear is that we are a long way from being able even to contemplate such a law in the United States.”
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