The Australian government has scolded representatives from the major tech companies at a meeting in Queensland on Tuesday, calling on the tech giants like Facebook and Twitter to convince regulators that they can monitor and crackdown on violent content livestreamed on their platforms.
Reports floated around earlier this morning that the government has begun drafting legislation that could result in criminal penalties being lobbied against companies like Facebook – but Google, Twitter and other livestreaming platforms such as Twitch would also be affected – if they fail to remove violent content, like what was aired in Christchurch.
The ABC reported that the individual executives of social media companies would also be prosecuted, should the platform holder fail to act immediately upon being notified that violent terrorist footage was hosted on their platforms. The ABC understands that the laws are being modelled on the existing regulation that forces social media companies to pull child exploitation posts, images or video, and to notify police after finding it.
On Tuesday, executives from the major tech companies met with the Australian government in Queensland at a meeting convened by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, according to the AFR. Representatives from Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, TPG, Facebook, Twitter and Google reportedly attended the meeting.
In the meeting, Federal Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton asked the tech companies how it was possible the Christchurch livestream could have remained on their network without them being alerted to the content, according to Nine.
Following the meeting, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told a press conference on Tuesday afternoon: “If you can write an algorithm to make sure that the ads they want you to see can appear on your mobile phone, then I’m quite confident they can write an algorithm to screen out hate content on these social platforms,”
While the technical angle from local politicians is unique, the general rhetoric is aligned with what most regulators have been saying over the past week. New Zealand, which earmarked the terrorist’s manifesto as “objectionable” content that makes it illegal to possess or distribute, has led to the strongest attack against the tech giants.
“We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and that what is said on them is not the responsibility of the place where they are published,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said last week.
New Zealand has already arrested an 18-year-old for sharing a video of the attack, with a second person charged for posting a photo of one of the mosques attacked featuring the words “target acquired”.
Facebook, where the livestream was hosted, argued that less than 200 people saw the original livestream with the company claiming that none of the viewers reported the material during the live broadcast. One journalist pointed out otherwise, although he later noted that his report didn’t go through Facebook’s systems. And part of the problem there is that Facebook’s reporting tools let users raise flags over content featuring suicide, but not murder, something Facebook admitted was a flaw in their systems.
But as Facebook noted in a statement, relying on AI or machine learning to detect this kind of content in real-time isn’t as easy as it sounds. Because machine learning models work on training an AI against references images and video, the only effective way to train the model is to run it through more types of content like the massacre so it can learn to tell the difference:
This approach has worked very well for areas such as nudity, terrorist propaganda and also graphic violence where there is a large number of examples we can use to train our systems. However, this particular video did not trigger our automatic detection systems. To achieve that we will need to provide our systems with large volumes of data of this specific kind of content, something which is difficult as these events are thankfully rare.
Facebook added that a likely problem is false positives. If the settings are dialled up too high, Facebook’s systems could end up accidentally flagging livestreams of popular first-person shooter games like Counter-Strike or Apex Legends, wasting the time of moderators and slowing down alerting authorities.
Still, it’s the numbers that are going to be the real problem. The social media giant said that they removed 1.5 million videos featuring the attacks, with 1.2 million videos being blocked at the point of upload.
That means around 300,000 videos got through Facebook’s distribution platform, and it’s that inability to detect some objectionable content – but not all of it – that regulators are using to push the tech giants into a corner.
“There’s nothing within your algorithms or network that advises you there is a 17 minute video livestream of people being murdered on your platform … you’re still not aware at the 29 minute mark,” Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton reportedly said during Tuesday’s meeting.
And that’s complexity that all social media giants face with livestreaming in general. The point of livestreaming is to give users an unfettered voice to the internet. Platform holders see themselves as the postman, not a publisher, with the Communications Decency Act in the United States (where these companies are based) offering them legal cover from what is aired on their platforms.
The industry, at least, is aware of what they’re facing. Microsoft president Brad Smith has suggested a more collaborative approach between companies to help respond more quickly when attacks like those in Christchurch happen, suggesting that safe search-type functionality should be built into web browsers to block the viewing of content at the point of search, and that tech companies aren’t doing enough as a whole.
But their actions haven’t been good enough for governments so far, and it’s hard to see the industry unifying fast enough to prevent the imminent crackdown. Livestreaming is well and truly in the government spotlight, and while politicians are waiting for the companies to come back with an equitable solution, it’s going to be hard to convince them to put the bats down – especially this close to a federal election.