Rushed cyber laws have risky consequences

The world is still reeling from the horrific Christchurch terror attacks in which 50 lives were senselessly taken by a cowardly act.

Australians watched with deep horror and empathy informed by our own haunting memory of the Port Arthur Massacre.

There is no place for hatred or vilification based upon religion, race, colour or creed in our societies, nor is there any place for senseless violence.

Social media was designed to connect, not divide. Steps must be taken to ensure it is not weaponised to promote hatred and violence.

But policy on the run is always risky, particularly when the stakes are so high.

We all agree these atrocities should never have been live-streamed. Yet despite best intentions, laws formulated as a knee-jerk reaction to a tragic event do not necessarily equate to good legislation.

There is a real risk legislation rushed through the Australian Parliament last week to tighten social media regulation of violent material may have serious unintended consequences.

The Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material Act created two new offences.

First, a notification offence requiring social media platforms to promptly alert the Australian Federal Police if the platform became aware its service was streaming abhorrent violent conduct or material.

Second, a criminal offence for social media platforms who fail to remove abhorrent violent material expeditiously, punishable by up to three years' jail for individuals, or fines of up to 10 per cent of the platform's annual turnover.

This law was rammed through our parliament in 24 hours without consultation or proper scrutiny.

By contrast, when I arrived in New Zealand for discussions with the Law Society, I noted the New Zealand Government announced a royal commission into the attack, including the use of social media. It will report in December. This will allow mature consideration of issues dealing with social media.

One key concern with the Australian legislation is that whistle-blowers and journalists may no longer be able to deploy social media to shine a light on atrocities committed because social media companies will be required to remove certain content for fear of being charged with a crime.

There is no defence for providers who do not remove violent content posted by journalists. This is so, even if they believe the material is in the public interest, for example, to expose foreign governments killing their own citizens.

This could lead to censorship of the media, undermining its role as a safeguard against tyranny and terror.

However justified our grief, sense of loss and rage, we must ensure our response is proportionate, reasoned and measured.

Because if we allow terrorists to lead us away from the values we hold dear, we concede the very victory they seek.

Arthur Moses SC is president of the Law Council of Australia.