Elon Musk

Elon Musk’s X wins Australia court fight over censorship of church stabbing video

Author: Editors Desk, Nic Fildes in Sydney Source: Financial Times
May 13, 2024 at 10:25
Elon Musk’s X argued that the Australian internet watchdog’s application was ‘dangerous precedent’ that could threaten the concept of an open internet © Leon Neal/Pool/Reuters
Elon Musk’s X argued that the Australian internet watchdog’s application was ‘dangerous precedent’ that could threaten the concept of an open internet © Leon Neal/Pool/Reuters

Elon Musk’s X has won a court reprieve in Australia after a judge refused to extend an injunction banning graphic videos of an attack on a Sydney church last month.

Justice Geoffrey Kennett on Monday denied an application by Australia’s eSafety commissioner, the internet safety watchdog, to extend a ban on the videos, without immediately providing justification for his reasoning. A federal court had issued an interim injunction last month ordering the platform to hide all videos of the incident within 24 hours.

The Australian government argued that videos of the attack — in which four people were injured and which authorities have ruled was a “terrorist incident” — should be removed for all X users. Musk countered that such an act would be tantamount to censoring the internet.

X had blocked access to the video for its Australian users, but it remained accessible to users in the country who used a virtual private network, which the eSafety commissioner’s lawyers argued undermined efforts to block content that it had classified as “class 1”, or relating to high-impact violence or child abuse material.

A further hearing on the case will be held on Wednesday, ahead of a final ruling on the issue at an unspecified future date.

Tim Begbie KC, who represented the eSafety commissioner, noted during the hearing that X had taken down content in the past by its own volition but had resisted the order to do so from the Australian watchdog.

“X says . . . global removal is reasonable when X does it because X wants to do it, but it becomes unreasonable when it is told to do it by the laws of Australia,” he told the judge on Friday.

X had dubbed the eSafety commissioner’s application a “dangerous precedent” that could threaten the concept of an open internet and empower repressive governments around the world to try to censor content.

Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel, who was stabbed in the head during an attack on the Christ the Good Shepherd Church in Wakeley, west of Sydney, publicly opposed removal of the videos ahead of the hearing, saying he would be greatly concerned if the incident were used to control free speech.

Dana McKay, a lecturer at RMIT University in Melbourne, said X’s case was strengthened by its decision to “geo-block” access to the videos in Australia. This meant that only users in the country connected to a VPN and searching for it were likely to see it, while most internet users, including children, were much less likely to inadvertently come across it.

She added that if the judge ruled that the Australian watchdog’s bid to extend the injunction globally represented over-reach, it could have implications for other social media companies and governments.

“It would set the precedent that each country would decide for itself what is visible online,” she said. 

The eSafety commissioner said in a statement that the interim injunction would now lapse on Monday after the court declined to grant its application to extend the injunction “to hide the material identified in the removal notice given to X Corp”.

It added that the removal notice included specific video links and “did not extend to commentary, public debate or other posts about the event”.

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