In the days following the March 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings that left 51 dead, the Australian government acted rapidly to try and stop the killer’s message from spreading online.
The shooting had been designed to go viral. A livestream of the attack and the Australian shooter’s manifesto — containing ironic internet references alongside white supremacist messages — were shared to 8chan and Twitter prior to the attack. Facebook said it removed 1.5 million copies of the footage uploaded by users in the 24 hours after the shooting.
Less than two weeks later, both the footage and the manifesto were given a “Refused Classification” label by the Classification Board, which makes it a criminal offence to sell, distribute, exhibit or import them into Australia. New Zealand made a similar decision.
Australian internet service providers (ISPs) then voluntarily blocked websites that hosted the video or manifesto. Later on, the country’s internet censor — eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant — was given and exercised her power to compel ISPs to block websites hosting the Christchurch shooter’s content.
Announcing this change in September, communications and cyber safety minister Paul Fletcher said: “We cannot allow this type of horrific material to be used to incite further violence or terrorist acts.”
In 2019, attacks with similarities to Christchurch unfolded in Poway, California; El Paso, Texas; and Halle, Germany. Each followed the same pattern: individuals posted their manifestos online before murdering members of minority groups. The Halle shooter livestreamed the attack, the Poway shooter attempted to do so.
Despite the similarities, Australia didn’t respond in the same way.
The eSafety Commissioner confirmed to BuzzFeed News that the manifestos of Poway, El Paso and Halle shooters have not been referred to the Classification Board. She said the decision was made because content from subsequent shooters did not go as viral.
Inman Grant did, however, act on the footage of the Halle shooting, but using a different power her office was granted in the wake of Christchurch. She issued six abhorrent violent material notices for the footage, an order that requires hosts or providers to remove audio or video of “abhorrent violent material” such as a terrorist act. Penalties for failure to remove the material can result in significant fines for individuals and companies, and imprisonment.
The abhorrent violent material definition is “unlikely” to include manifestos produced by the three shooters, she said.
The New Zealand classification office banned the Halle shooter’s livestream footage and manifesto, but did not ban the El Paso or Poway manifestos.
Dr Andre Oboler is CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute and an author of the new report Hate And Violent Extremism From An Online Sub-Culture. He fears the proliferation of these manifestos could inspire further violence.
“In the case of this attack on Germany, the manifesto gave the recipes and instructions for making weapons and called for certain people to be killed,” Oboler told BuzzFeed News.
He said the refusal to refer manifestos for classification means Australians are free to sell, distribute or exhibit them.
As well, the use of an abhorrent violent material notice rather than a classification means that an Australian could legally host a public showing of the Halle shooter’s footage or hand out DVDs containing the video, even while it’s a crime to host the files online.
Oboler said the refusal to refer the content has made it harder to convince internet companies to stop the spread of the content.
“When you show it to Google, they say ‘Show us which law tells us to take it down’,” he said. “It’s only if it’s actually referred that it becomes illegal content.”
Oboler said he told the Australian government on Oct. 15 that Google still linked to manifestos he believes could incite others to carry out attacks. BuzzFeed News was able to locate copies of the Halle manifesto via a Google search at the time of publication.
Despite this, the eSafety Commissioner does not plan to classify the manifestos and said there is no legal obligation to do so.
“Given the reduced exposure of Australians to that material and consequent lessened risk of harm, we did not think it necessary to make a similar application for classification,” Inman Grant told BuzzFeed News in a statement.
A spokesperson for Fletcher told BuzzFeed News that consultation around a new Online Safety act — which includes a proposal to speed up the process that allows the eSafety Commissioner to block terrorist content — is currently open.