Elon Musk.
Elon Musk's X has been ordered to block all users from seeing footage of a Sydney church stabbing. Image by AP PHOTO
  • crime, law and justice

X threatened with fines over graphic material

April 23, 2024

The eSafety Commissioner has threatened social media site X with hefty fines if the company continues fighting an order to take down graphic material, while experts say regulators have further options they can use.

The Federal Court on Monday granted an interim injunction that has compelled the social media giant to hide content of a recent stabbing attack in Sydney, echoing an edict issued by the commissioner a week earlier.

A spokesperson from the online safety watchdog says the commission is expecting another hearing in the coming days that will decide whether to extend the injunction past its Wednesday 5pm deadline, followed by a final hearing where eSafety will seek a permanent injunction and civil penalties against X.

This means X could be fined a maximum of $782,500 for each instance of non-compliance with a removal notice.

The company said it complied with the order temporarily while it fights it in court but argued a global takedown order violates the principle of free speech – a point which has been hammered home by billionaire owner Elon Musk. 

But a spokesperson for the eSafety Commissioner clarified that the removal notice “does not relate to commentary, public debate or other posts about this event, even those which may link to extreme violent content”.

“It only concerns the video of the violent stabbing attack on Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel,” they said.

The jurisdiction of the commissioner has also been brought into question, with X disputing that an Australian authority can dictate what overseas users access.

But completely removing the posts instead of just geoblocking them for Australian users may be necessary to comply with Australian law, media expert Dr Rob Nicholls said.

“They’re having now to deal with the consequences of failing to have a business model that can cope with the law in the jurisdictions in which they operate.

“That’s a big problem.”

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, took down posts after receiving a similar order from the commissioner as they valued advertising revenue while Mr Musk was more zealous about maintaining open speech, Dr Nicholls said.

“He has decided that free speech under the First Amendment and the US Constitution is more important to his global business model than compliance with the law in the jurisdictions in which it operates,” he said.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
 Anthony Albanese says Elon Musk is an “arrogant billionaire” for failing to take down graphic posts. Image by Darren England/AAP PHOTOS 

Mr Musk has drawn the ire of Australian politicians who want graphic material of the stabbing removed, with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese leading the charge after he branded the billionaire as “arrogant”.

“We’ll do what’s necessary to take on this arrogant billionaire who thinks he’s above the law, but also above common decency,” he told ABC television on Monday.

“The idea that someone would go to court for the right to put up violent content on a platform shows how out of touch Mr Musk is.”

While supporting free speech, Mr Musk was “dead wrong” on the stance about terror content, Liberal frontbencher Simon Birmingham said, while independent senator Jacqui Lambie went further and called him a “social media knob”.

Jacqui Lambie Network Senator Jacqui Lambie.
 Jacqui Lambie says Elon Musk is a “social media knob” for refusing to remove violent content from X. Image by Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS 

Asked whether the commissioner could be granted stronger powers or if access to X in Australia should be cut, the prime minister said the government was looking at what measures could be taken. 

“No one wants censorship here – what we want, though, is the application of a bit of common sense so you don’t show and propagate violence online,” Mr Albanese said.

The opposition has backed tougher laws to crack down on graphic content being shared online.

While the eSafety Commissioner already had the power to essentially block the social media site in Australia by getting telcos to deny access, it hadn’t shown any signs of going down that path yet, Dr Nicholls said.

Telcos proactively shut down access to sites that disseminated video of the Christchurch massacre in 2019.