MAIN STORY – By Telecom Times Contributing Editor Leon Spencer

As Facebook moves to ban white nationalism and separatist content from its site, Australia’s largest telcos have embarked on a law-making journey with the Federal Government in a bid to tackle the live-streaming of terror content in the wake of the Christchurch massacre.

The Christchurch mosque shootings on 15 March, which killed 50 people and injured dozens more, was live streamed on social media by the suspected gunman, with the live stream active for 17 minutes on Facebook before it was taken down, According to Australia’s Attorney-General Christian Porter.

The footage remained accessible for well over an hour. This was unacceptable in the Government’s view.

“It’s clear that the responses of Facebook and other social media platforms were not fast enough. They weren’t good enough. And that was a message that was clearly conveyed,” Minister for Communications and the Arts Mitch Fifield said on 26 March.

Also on 26 March, Fifield, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and other Government officials held a summit with Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, TPG and telco industry body, the Communications Alliance, along with representatives from Facebook, Google and Twitter to discuss the best ways to prevent a repeat of the live-streaming online of such events in the future.

The Government came away less than enthused by the social media giants’ efforts to provide workable solutions.

“This [meeting] was an opportunity to dissuade the Government from a view that legislation may be needed to deal with that emergent issue, and I must say that as an effort to discourage us from that view, this was thoroughly underwhelming,” Porter said immediately following the meeting.

However, a plan of action was agreed upon that is set to see the establishment of a taskforce to determine the specific actions, timeframes and responsibilities needed to effectively underpin a regime designed to prevent future terror live streams in Australia.

Reporting to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet through the Attorney-General’s Department, the Communications Department, and the Home Affairs Department, the taskforce will have representatives from the social media platforms and the internet service providers (ISPs) to look at both short and medium-term responses.

While the Government commentary so far has billed the issue largely as a social media platform matter, it is clearly very much an ISP issue as well, demonstrated by the central role Australia’s largest telcos are set to play in the taskforce.

While it remains to be seen what measures the taskforce recommends, according to the summit’s agenda, seen by Telecom Times, the Government was looking at three core elements to improving outcomes in its discussions on 26 March with the ISPs and the social media companies.

The first consideration of the agenda was the prevention and protection of terror-related live-streams, including detecting, blocking, and instantaneous and faster takedown options for violent terrorist material.

Second was transparency, specifically improving transparency of the actions taken by the platforms and ISPs in relation to violent terrorist material.

The third was deterrence through the enhancement of responsibility for the upload and distribution of violent by individuals, platforms and ISPs.

Through the taskforce, the Government now plans to work with ISPs and social media companies to work out which contingent – ISP, telco or social media platform – will bear responsibility for the various processes, systems and mechanisms that will be put in place to prevent a repeat a live stream like that on 15 March.

Porter told Triple M Central West’s Stephen Cenatempo on 27 March that the first stage for the Government in the creation of new laws is to ensure that whatever proposed legislation is delivered to Parliament it makes it “unlawful to continue to stream acts of terrorism or murder or rape after you should be reasonably aware that your platform is hosting that content”.

“And in effect we have similar laws to that already with respect to terrible content like child pornography, and if it is unlawful to have that content on your platform, why should it not similarly be unlawful to have a murder or a rape on your platform,” Porter said. “So, these laws are capable of being drafted and we are drafting them at the moment. But, of course, as the platform and the space evolves, you’ll always need to consider further laws.

“But a very simple proposition that we would put is that it is unacceptable and should be unlawful to continue streaming an event like Christchurch after you have reasonably become aware that your platform is hosting that material,” he said.

Porter went on to outline the next move, which would be to finalise the drafting of the legislation, preferably by the final week of the current Parliamentary sitting period.

“There’s one last sitting week for Parliament before a likely imminent election,” Porter said. “So, we would look to finalise some drafting around criminalising and making unlawful the type of situation that we saw with the live streaming of murderous content in Christchurch and bring that into Parliament in the final week of this sitting.”

It is understood that, as yet, ISPs haven’t been instructed by the Government on what to do if a similar scenario were to unfold. In time, however, a set of guidelines is expected to emerge, providing detailed responsibilities for both ISPs and platform operators.  

Ultimately, the respective responsibilities are expected to come down technological capability rather than willingness to abide by any resulting guidelines. This is largely because the Government has made it clear that if it needs to legislate in order to enforce a new regime, it will.

If the Government’s current rhetoric around the issue is anything to go by, any legislation to emerge following the consultation process could very well lead to criminal charges for social media platform executives here in Australia and overseas.

“A large number of large social media platforms are obviously not based in Australia. But it is also the case that our laws have an extra territorial reach. If part of an offence occurs in Australia, and of course part of the factual matrix of a potential offence of live streaming are that Australians are watching the live stream. So, it has a connectivity to Australia, which would underpin the criminal offence,” Porter said on 26 March.

While the country’s telcos have made it clear they back the Government’s move to take action regarding the live streaming of terror-related material, with Optus saying it supports the Government “taking a leadership position on this issue” and Telstra claiming it is “happy to be involved in the consultation process,” there appears to be at least some caution around how the eventual solutions will be achieved.

“We believe there needs to be clarity on the role of a lead government agency to quickly provide direction on how content platform owners and telcos should respond,” Vodafone Australia CEO Iñaki Berroeta told Telecom Times in a statement. “The content platforms are best-placed to stop unacceptable content in its tracks by putting in place effective controls to prevent it being published. If they do not, then we can understand why government will need to step in.

“Telcos can only ever be the last resort because once content is available on the internet, it can spread like wildfire. We cannot block content, only entire websites, and there are various ways users can bypass website blocking,” he said.

Berroeta’s comments come after the country’s largest telcos agreed to voluntarily block websites suspected of being used to host and share copies of the Christchurch live stream video in the immediate aftermath of the shootings at the suggestion of New Zealand authorities.

The creation of the taskforce and the actions taken by the Government to crack down on terror-related live streaming on social media platforms comes as it also moves to crack down on how the social media giants operating locally collect, use and share the personal information of Australians.

On 25 March, Porter and Fifield jointly announced that the Government will introduce amendments to the Privacy Act that will Increase penalties for all entities covered by the Act, including social media and online platforms operating in Australia, from the current maximum penalty of $2.1 million for serious or repeated breaches to $10 million, or three times the value of any benefit obtained through the misuse of information, or 10 per cent of a company’s annual domestic turnover – whichever is the greater.

Moreover, the Government said it would Provide the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) with new infringement notice powers backed by new penalties of up to $63,000 for bodies corporate and $12,600 for individuals for failure to cooperate with efforts to resolve minor breaches.

“This penalty and enforcement regime will be backed by legislative amendments which will result in a code for social media and online platforms which trade in personal information. The code will require these companies to be more transparent about any data sharing and requiring more specific consent of users when they collect, use and disclose personal information,” Porter said at the time.

“We will also be requiring platforms to implement a mechanism to ensure they can take all reasonable action to stop using an individual’s personal information if a user requests them to do so and have even stronger regimes to address these issues when the user is a child or other vulnerable person,” he said.

While the proposed Privacy Act changes are aimed squarely at social media platform operators, the Privacy Act itself applies to businesses across Australia’s industry landscape, with the country’s telcos and ISPs being particularly beholden to the legislation.

“Telecommunications providers would not be considered ‘social media platforms’ for the purpose of the privacy code and would only be captured in the same way as any other entity subject to the Privacy Act—that is, to the extent their business activities include trading in personal information online,” a statement from the Attorney-General’s Department said.

Regardless of how the proposed changes may affect Australian telcos, it seems that at least some in the local industry are taking a cautiously optimistic view, with Telstra telling Telecom Times, “we take the privacy of our customers very seriously and would be happy to be involved in the industry consultation process for any proposed changes to the Privacy Act”.

Meanwhile, Optus said it would “consider the Attorney-General’s recommendations in detail when the draft is provided for consultation”.

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