A good knee-jerk reaction is only worth doing if it’s quick enough, especially in election season (which, to be fair, is every second year in Australia);
Hasty legislation is so very tempting to those in power as they feel under pressure to be seen to be doing something, anything, in the wake of exceptional or unique events.
The Australian government is therefore making noises about introducing legislation enabling the prosecution of the leaders of technology companies on whose platforms the video footage of the Christchurch murderer’s crimes were shared should similar situations occur in the future.
Our confirmation biases trick us into thinking there is merit with this approach. There are multiple problems with what has been proposed in this thought bubble of a policy description however. Let’s list them and see if you agree:
1. Opportunity cost – given finite resources of time, money and personnel, is this the best and most urgent response the legislators and law enforcement authorities can take to minimise the risk similar murderous violence doesn’t re-occur? I say “minimise the risk” because, despite what anyone would like to think, there is no palatable way to completely prevent murders occurring. The shooter was hiding in plain sight on various internet discussion forums, perhaps some more diligence on behalf of those tasked with crime prevention might be the better priority?
2. Legislation requiring innovation – a law that would deliver jail time to the CEO of Facebook Australia for hosting a snuff movie is, in effect, demanding the company either throw thousands of content moderators at the problem 24×7 OR they invent 100% foolproof algorithms to automatically remove the content the moment it is uploaded. Neither of which is particularly likely, which brings us to problem #3….
3. The law of unintended consequences – the CEO will be extremely motivated to remain at liberty and without a criminal record, therefore they will scale back their content and offering to the Australian market. 99.9999% of livestream content breaks no law, yet faced with the risk of jail, an intelligent CEO is going to simply pull that functionality and content from the Australia IP addresses. Worse, the risk to the CEO has still not gone away due to problem #4…..
4. Virtual Private Networks – VPNs are cheap and easily procured. If content is blocked in Australia, it’s likely users could hop on to a VPN and spoof their location to a different geography and see it anyway. Anyone who enjoys using torrent services that are geo-blocked in Australia already knows this. Faced with this risk, perhaps the tech companies would withdraw or scale back their Australian office footprint?
5. Who defines what content is banned? – if we were to legislate against “dangerous” content, hasty legislation would be a mistake. The definition of what is to be banned is going to require significant discussion and debate, followed up with extreme legal scrutiny to ensure the legislation is unambiguous and not simply providing a censor’s charter to a future government.
In a crisis, people revert to what they know. Politicians know how to announce and create rapid, ambiguous legislation that satisfies the expediency of being seen to act but fails the test of sustainability and desirability over the long term.
Expect more of this.
Also expect legislation to make subscription to a VPN illegal once someone explains their use to the politicians.