Nobody likes Nazis. Even Nazis aren’t super keen to be associated with them, which is why euphemisms like “ethno-nationalist” and “right-wing extremist” start trending whenever some white supremacist mouth-breather breaks into the news cycle. Increasingly, however, white supremacist mouth-breathers are the news cycle.
From genuine monsters, live-streaming mass atrocities in New Zealand, to smaller, more intimate personal hate crimes perpetrated daily in a million YouTube comments and Facebook posts, the spectre of the alt-right has displaced the bogeyman of Islamist terror as the motive force behind government efforts to regulate and control the internet. It’s a grimly impressive achievement.
In the wake of the Christchurch massacre, the Coalition government’s nattily named Criminal Code Amendment (Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material) Bill 2019 sluiced through the pipes at Parliament House last week. The Opposition was unwilling to place any sort of blockage in its path, in spite of grave misgivings about the law’s potentially dire impact on both new and old media businesses. When you’re getting sandbagged by both the angry old white men of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and the fetchingly stubbled billionaire hipsters of Atlassian, you can rest assured you’ve pissed off everyone in the maximum addressable market.
There are any number of ways of looking at the Bill, and the Government’s earlier encryption laws, which were also waved through by a Labor Opposition fearful of getting wedged as soft on terror.
The Criminal Code Amendment, which can usefully be thought as A Bill To Jail Mark Zuckerberg (Finally!) “defines abhorrent violent material” as “online-hosted content that depicts a violent act of terrorism, murder, attempted murder, torture, rape or kidnapping.”
The Attorney-General, Christian Porter, argues that the mass murder in New Zealand exposed a critical failure of existing laws to constrain the spread of violent content on services like Facebook and YouTube.
The constraint now comes in the form of long jail terms for tech execs and multibillion-dollar fines for industry giants that fail to stop homicidal maniacs blasting out vision of their atrocites.
The tech industry, predictably, has a different take. Atlassian bros, Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar, criticised both the Government for introducing knee-jerk, ill-conceived and damaging legislation, and the ALP for supporting it.
“The simple fact on this one is, Labor is not willing to get jammed on crime,” Cannon-Brookes said in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald. “How do you complain something is a terrible law and go vote yes? It shouldn’t get rushed through. It’s election driven. It’s very, very unfortunate.”
Google, Facebook and Twitter all sent C-level executives to lobby the Morrison Government against rushing through legislation in the wake of Christchurch. Given they would be the ones occupying jail cells or paying fines of up to ten per cent of their companies’ global turnover for any breaches, they were undoubtedly motivated when making their case.
But not as motivated as the Government.
It suddenly had its re-election strategy blown up by a mouth-breather with a GoPro, a lot of guns, and a political philosophy which could be seen as the logical end-point of demonising refugees and Muslims as an existential threat to our precious freedoms and way of life. Or, in other words, the framing strategy of most conservative parties after 9/11, and the business model of the Murdoch empire after Google and Facebook ate its lunch.
This week’s Bill, and last year’s encryption laws, can reasonably be seen not just as a response to the threat of terror — whether from alt-right nut jobs or beardy jihadists — but also as a hedge against the shifting power dynamics within the post-industrial West. Governments have woken up to the threat of gigantic private corporations that pay very little tax rigging the political system in their favour. Old-media businesses woke up even earlier to the predatory intentions of their new-media successors.
The platforms, for their part, are awake to the threat. Not so much the threat from online Nazis and holy warriors — which can be a surprisingly lucrative demographic for targeted advertising — but rather the threat from the State. And, in particular, the Australian State.
Australia’s encryption laws were widely perceived as a stalking horse for efforts among the other partners in the Five Eyes intelligence grouping (the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand) to push the limits of legislative control over the tech industry.
Privatising profits, socialising losses
Before then, however, Australian governments of both persuasions had also led the charge against tax avoidance by multinational corporations. In particular by the tech giants, which routinely used transfer pricing magic tricks to offshore their profits to post office boxes in low- or zero-tax jurisdictions, while leaving all of their expense claims onshore.
While the simplest explanation for Canberra’s almost certainly botched regulatory response to Christchurch is the understandable reflex to do something — anything — about an intolerable outrage, the deeper strategic contest between vast private wealth and the public interest cannot be ignored.
Still, Facebook does make a lot of money selling adverts to Nazis and the close personal friends of Nazis.
And Russia did subvert a US election and the UK Brexit referendum.
And Mark Zuckerberg might just be a Terminator who’s been sent back from our robot future to kill us all.
The open secret of the attention economy is that it demands more and more of our attention to keep growing. When Facebook decided to monetise through advertising, its responsibility to maximise shareholder returns meant maximising user engagement with the service. Twitter, Facebook, Fortnite, Clash of Clans, online poker, Candy Crush, Fox News, Breitbart, The Daily Stormer — the whole teetering digital dumpster fire is all predicted on addiction, not connection.
Legislative schemes to address the symptoms of this addiction — such as the millions of attempted shares of the Christchurch massacre video — will come to nothing as long as the underlying sickness goes unaddressed.