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How Will Stringent Content Laws Overseas Affect Live Streaming in the United States?

Tech

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Drastic laws are starting to take form overseas to manage the impact of social platforms’ negligence of violence and tragedy. What impact will that have stateside?

In the wake of the horrifying Christchurch mosque attack, lawmakers in Australia and New Zealand have acted swiftly to present such acts from happening again.

After first addressing laws surrounding firearms themselves, the focus has shifted now to the means of broadcast: livestreaming via social media. Criminal Code Amendment (Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material) Bill 2019, introduced last week and passed by both houses, would take swift and significant action against platforms who allow objectionable or violent footage to circulate.

Adjudicating the Abhorrent

According to AdWeek,

The new law makes failure by social media platforms to “expeditiously” remove “abhorrent” violent material a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in prison for the executives deemed responsible or fines of up to 10 percent of the company’s annual revenue in the country.

Such drastic laws will likely expedite the efforts of companies like Facebook – the most commonly named platform facing this issue following Christchurch – to quell the broadcast and later sharing of such atrocities. COO Sheryl Sandberg cited “a strengthening of rules for using Facebook Live” as one of three steps for the company, in addition to “taking further steps to address hate on our platforms, and supporting the New Zealand community.” And yet, critics continue to wonder if such vaguely worded promises will be enough to manage the formidable challenge ahead.

Remaining “Content-First” Amid Catastrophe

In an interview with the Washington Post on the issue, Stanford researcher Becca Lewis rightfully points out that tech companies like Facebook and YouTube “have a content moderation problem that is fundamentally beyond the scale that they know how to deal with,” also noting that their priority has never been to effectively manage the impact of that scale. Rather, she says, “the financial incentives are in play to keep content first and monetization first.” So as long as there stands to be money in livestreaming as a platform, and as long as there stands to be demand for the service – regardless of how bad actors could use it – sites like Facebook and YouTube will fight to keep it alive.

To an extent, this can actually be good. Citing the broadcast of House Democrats’ gun control sit-in in 2016, The Verge’s Casey Newton is quick to point out that these new technologies have positive applications, ones that should not be overlooked as we legislate bad actors’ eventual use:

Tools that democratize the sharing of information have followed a familiar pattern. First, they are discovered by the early adopters that use them generally for good; then they are discovered by criminals who exploit them relentlessly […] With the Christchurch shooting, we seem to have reached the end point of all newly democratized communications tools: its usage for unabashed terrorism.

Blazing Trails from Overseas

How, then, should lawmakers rightfully concerned about the dangerous use of these tools legislate against such worries – without hampering their use for good-faith efforts? In truth, the proposed Australian law feels like a viable compromise; it allows for the bypassing of feature alterations like content delays that platform executives have fought against, while also placing a burden on these same executives to act swiftly should their product be used poorly. This burden should then, in turn, push these organizations to invest more resources into effectively monitoring and policing their heavily trafficked platforms, keeping an accurate and watchful eye out for dangerous and inherently harmful content.

Could similar efforts be too far off domestically? Numerous piecemeal efforts, like the proposed Senate DETOUR Act, are making small steps toward curbing the at times outsized influence that these companies have on our sharing of data and access to tragedy. But the operative term here: “small steps,” and “outsized influence.” In many ways, the United States remains a “wild West” of sorts as efforts to regulate remain out-of-reach. But overseas frontiers, like those in Australia and New Zealand, may effect the change on that front that this country clearly needs.

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