Sharing offensive, violent material online to become criminal under draft law

The Government is proposing to make sharing of abhorrent, violent or otherwise offensive material online a criminal offence.

It plans to do this in a Bill targeted at social media platforms.

A new draft bill would oblige internet service and hosting providers and producers of online content to notify the Police about the propagation of offensive material online, or face a maximum fine of $200,000 or criminal prosecution. 

If approved into law, the Office of the Regulator will have charge of enforcement. 

Companies that do not respond "expeditiously" to requests to remove offending material will face prosecution.

The proposed legislation is the “Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material Bill 2019”. 

The Bill would also make the publication of material by people engaged in abhorrent or violent behaviour, or those attempting to conspire, aid or engage in the abhorrent conduct online a criminal offence. 

It defines offensive material as relating to the documentation of abhorrent acts of violence, "material that reasonable persons would regard as being, in all the circumstances, offensive". 

Exemptions are allowed for news reports by journalists "in the public interest", the conduct of legitimate academic or scientific research or public officials and political protest. 

The proposed law defines abhorrent or violent acts such as terrorism; murder; attempts to murder; torturing another person; rape or kidnap.

The notification obligations are placed on the internet service providers; hosting service providers and hosting service providers to refer materials to the police within a reasonable time after becoming aware of the existence of the material. 

Police earlier this month issued a warning to members of the public who had shared photos of an abandoned dead newborn baby at  Mulifanua Wharf.

“It is inhumane to post photos of this poor infant. There is no need to post the photos on social media,"  the Commissioner of Police, Fuiavaili’ili Egon Keil, said at the time.

The Bill follows global condemnation of the role that Facebook inadvertently played in broadcasting live video of the March Christchurch massacre which had a gunman kill 51 Muslim worshippers in New Zealand.

The Bill includes a sunset clause that would require Ministerial review of its impact after a period of two years from its implementation. 

Tech giants expressed concern after Australia passed legislation to crack down on violent videos on social media following a similar law, which had have a national commissioner trigger requests to take down content. Social media companies protested that they are engaged in monitoring their sites for offensive material but that the vast volumes of data they store makes detection take time. 

In New Zealand last week, Police charged 35 people around the country over possession of the video of the Christchurch mosque shooting.

In New Zealand, that country's Chief Censor has classified the footage and a publication of a "manifesto" reportedly written by the man alleged to have perpetrated the shootings as objectionable.

Knowingly possessing or sharing objectionable material carries a prison term of up to 14 years.

In information released under the Official Information Act, police said that as of 21 August there had been 35 charges in relation to possession of the video.

The charges have led to 14 prosecutions, 10 referrals to the Youth Court, one written warning and eight verbal warnings.

Thirteen of the charges were in Canterbury, and seven were in the Bay of Plenty.

Two charges, both laid in Canterbury, were withdrawn.

Nine of the people charged in Canterbury have faced prosecution and two referred to youth court.

In the Bay of Plenty, two people face prosecution, one was referred to the youth court and four people were given a verbal warning.

The area with the next highest charges was the Southern region, where one person has been prosecuted, two referred to the youth court and two people given verbal warnings.

The only area where no charges were laid over sharing of the video was the Northern Police district.

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