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Sense and censorship in social media crackdown



Things are not looking good of late regarding internet freedoms and those venturing to use them. On 26 March, the European Parliament approved the Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market despite the calls of over five million online petitioners and the voices of over a hundred thousand protesters. The directive proposes to impose a fee on news aggregators displaying small sections or portions of linked news stories. Most contentious of all, Article 13 imposes obligations on online content platforms to ensure any uploaded media does not infringe copyright.

Front view of the top of a young woman's head and eyes as she watches a movie online, relaxing on sofa, listening to music and streaming online content (10'000 Hours / Getty Creative)Last week also saw the Australian government insist on social media platforms becoming assiduous gatekeepers, ever mindful of removing inappropriate, harmful and 'abhorrent violent material' that might be uploaded. Last week's Brisbane summit between the Morrison cabinet with Facebook and other social media platform employees, which sought to address new means of regulation, did not impress. The government had, in the words of Communications Minister Senator Mitch Fifield, attempted to explain 'that the rules and laws and the norms that apply to the physical world should also apply to the online world'.

Facebook staff present at the meeting responded with the claim that its artificial intelligence mechanisms to detect such streams of material were well honed; any changes would be considered by those in higher management back in Silicon Valley. Prime Minister Scott Morrison's cabinet was irate: why did they not send over the appropriate mandarins for the occasion?

In an interview with radio station 2GB, Senator Fifield said he felt the tech giants were 'too slow to remove the material [of the Christchurch shooting] once it was drawn to their attention'. For Fifield, such matters are simple things that could be rectified by legislation. And what could too slow be defined as? Facebook, for instance, did remove shared material of the alleged Christchurch shooter within the first 24 hours. The initial stream was viewed 4000 times within the first hour before it was removed. That speed, according to Attorney General Christian Porter, had been 'totally unreasonable'.

The incentive being proposed by the Morrison government is one of punishment through fines and imprisonment. If material such as 'the live streaming of mass murder, terrorism, kidnap or rape' were drawn to the attention of the platforms 'and they don't remove it as soon as possible, then that would be an offence'.

Mark Zuckerberg issued both a riposte and an appeal on the weekend in the Washington Post. As Facebook's founder, and permanently in some hot water over his company's privacy breaches, he called for new laws in the areas of harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability. Governments, in other words, needed to link up with the social media giants in reaching acceptable, enforceable standards on content and material.

To that end, Facebook was 'creating an independent body so people can appeal our decisions' about what is posted and removed. A body of common rules across all social media sites needed to be agreed upon, enforced by third-party entities. A common global framework would ensure standardisation of rules.


"The money makers have become the gatekeepers; they are now being asked to be gendarmes of morality."


The argument being put forth by the Australian government takes a somewhat different approach to this, saddling the likes of Facebook with near exclusive responsibility for uploaded content. This makes a few presumptions. First, that users of the internet cannot be trusted, even within the shortest time frames, to see, use or debate material posted that might be deemed offensive, dangerous or radicalising. The will of the censor, in other words, must prevail over the mind of the internet user. Remove or perish.

The second is as troubling as the first: social media and content platforms are being asked to become the internet's moral gatekeepers. The tech behemoths are, as it is, enormously influential, almost dangerously so. Google controls access to information; Facebook, to people; Apple to phones; Amazon, to goods and software services. Scott Rosenberg makes the salient point that two decades has seen us come full circle from those days of the '"permissionless" internet and web' which sought growth 'by connecting the world and bypassing gatekeepers'. The money makers have become the gatekeepers; they are now being asked to be gendarmes of morality.

The thrust of the Morrison government's new changes is one of heavy handed and forced deferral, outsourcing government policing by vesting it in social media platforms. Israel's Cyber Unit, known as Unit 8200, by way of contrast, has been seeking the same object via more subtle means, collaborating with Facebook and YouTube for some years to remove errant posts and content.

In 2016, the unit made 2241 content removal requests; 69 per cent were accepted. The Australian reaction promises to be extreme: punishment more than collaboration, and an automatic shouldering of law enforcement and short-cut policing by the likes of Facebook. As Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship persuasively argues, co-opting social media outlets as law enforcement agents subverts due legal process and undermines 'fundamental principles of democracy'. But political theory has never been the strong point of the paternalistic censor.



Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Main image: 10'000 Hours / Getty Creative

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Facebook, Christchurch attack



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Existing comments

Good article. While reading it the thought popped into my head, this is the year 2019 with 1984 just around the corner.

Brian Leeming | 02 April 2019  

What difference does it make if Facebook censors the Net on its own or a government collaborates with it to do the same thing? If anything, laws should be passed to ensure the operators of content platforms such as Facebook, Google and YouTube cannot say that their freedom to say what they want on their platforms means that they don’t have to share space on their platforms with opposing views such as, for example, YouTube’s banning of video clips by Prager University. All Morrison wants to do is ban moving pictures of gratuitous violence from content platforms. This is a far cry from the preciousness in the Francine Crimmins article to prevent an obnoxious outlier’s sentiments from being reported verbatim instead of being mediated by information intermediaries or, for that matter, Jacinda Ardern’s equally precious implied wish to ban the obnoxious outlier’s name from everybody’s lips. This is superstitious behaviour, on a par with a Passion story in which the Messiah is betrayed by (somebody who must remain nameless).

roy chen yee | 02 April 2019  

As I keep on stating our nation needs a Federal bill of rights, because whoever is in government by-partisan agreement continues to remove so many civil liberties and freedoms' for one reason or other. The media is silent and the minority groups play on apolitical correctness.

Edward M | 04 April 2019  

"Punishment more than collaboration". Well, isn't that how our Australian governments usually work?

Joan Seymour | 04 April 2019  

Binoy I agree. The Morrison Government response to ChCh was to lash out at Facebook, Instagram and Twitter instead of engaging in some well deserved introspection as to how we have suddenly become an exporter of right wing white murderous fascism. Islam's flock have unwittingly become the new martyrs. The problem with uploading videos is that there are so many posts worldwide that its impossible to effectively police it. And if the guardians of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram can't control their own creations, maybe they need to impose a 30 minute delay/pause period before anything goes online to give them a fighting chance. I think the growling at the social media is a face saving response from Morrison and Dutton at their powerlessness to control the right wing supremacists and ASIO and law enforcement misguided concentration just on the most obvious targets. The best form of offence is attack. Its an election year.

Francis Armstrong | 04 April 2019  

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