'Rammed-through' social-media law disappoints Australia's peak legal body

Media freedom and whistleblowing of atrocities have been put at risk, the Law Council of Australia says

'Rammed-through' social-media law disappoints Australia's peak legal body

The nation’s peak body for the legal profession has slammed the country’s new law on violent content on social media, saying that it threatens media freedom and whistleblowing of atrocities in Australia and beyond.

The Criminal Code Amendment (Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material) Bill 2019 passed both houses of Parliament today, enabling Australia to punish social media companies and their executives if violent content are not “expeditiously” taken down. The companies can be fined up to 10% of their worldwide turnover and their executives can be jailed for up to three years for flouting the law.

The Law Council of Australia said that the process taken by the government to enact the law is rushed and flawed, which has led to the possibility of it creating negative consequences.

“Media freedom and whistleblowing of atrocities here and overseas have been put at risk by the ill-informed livestream laws passed by the Federal Parliament,” said Arthur Moses SC, Law Council president. “The Law Council is disappointed and concerned these ‘world-first laws’, which were rammed through in 24 hours without scrutiny and consultation, will have negative unintended consequences.”

The Law Council earlier warned that the then-proposed bill would set a dangerous precedent. It may also be unconstitutional and would create difficulties in sentencing and setting appropriate punishment for offences committed. The Law Council has now said that the law can lead to censorship.

“We now have a situation where important news can be censored across social media platforms, which is contrary to the democratic principle of a free press, which exists to hold governments to account,” Moses said.

The top body said that while it agrees that action needs to be taken to combat the weaponisation of social media and the proliferation of violent content on these platforms, the process should have been thorough as consultation was required.

“These laws should have been subject to the committee process,” Moses said. “When parliament returns after the federal election these laws must be reviewed and amendments made to deal with the negative impacts they have the potential of causing.”

Earlier in the day, the Law Council said that making social media companies criminally liable for the livestreaming criminal content is a “serious step which requires careful consideration.” It also said that the measure “should not absolve the government [from] taking steps to prevent crimes being livestreamed.” It described the law as “a knee-jerk reaction to a tragic event,” which “does not necessarily equate to good legislation.”


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