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X owner Elon Musk, pictured here in January 2024. (Grzegorz Wajda/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

Australia taking on ‘arrogant billionaire’

April 24, 2024

By Hilary Whiteman, CNN

Brisbane, Australia (CNN) — In one camp is a tech billionaire with more than 181 million followers on his own social network. In the other, political leaders representing a country of just 26 million people.

Insults have been hurled for days by both sides in an increasingly bare-knuckled fight between X owner Elon Musk and the Australian government that’s playing out both online and in the Federal Court.

At issue is the right of X to publish a video showing the moment a 16-year-old allegedly stabbed a bishop in an Orthodox Christian Church in Sydney earlier this month.

Australian authorities say the clips threw fuel on a riot that erupted outside the church after the attack and shouldn’t be available for general viewing on a global platform, where it could be used to radicalize potential offenders.

The country’s e-safety commissioner ordered social media giants to take it down.

Most complied, but X didn’t go far enough, according to the commissioner.

Australia wants X to remove the video completely, not just hide it from Australian users who could circumvent a local ban by using virtual private networks.

X says that’s an assault on free speech.

“Our concern is that if ANY country is allowed to censor content for ALL countries, which is what the Australian ‘eSafety Commissar’ is demanding, then what is to stop any country from controlling the entire Internet? Musk posted on X.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Tuesday labelled Musk an “arrogant billionaire who thinks he’s above the law, but also above common decency.”

After deleting her X account and urging other politicians to do the same, Jacqui Lambie, a straight-talking senator and former soldier from Tasmania, posted an image of herself on Facebook dressed in army fatigues with a message to Musk to “put his big boy pants on and do the right thing.”

The post dropped around midnight in the United States, and as of writing, the X boss hadn’t responded. Though her previous calls on national television for Musk to be jailed resulted in him branding her “an enemy of the people of Australia.”

X did not reply to a request for comment.

The right to view

On Wednesday, more than a week after the attack, the video was still available to view on the X account of the Australian Jewish Association (AJA). President David Adler told CNN he hadn’t been asked to take it down, either by X or Australia’s e-safety commissioner.

Adler said the AJA received an email from X saying Australian authorities had contacted the company with a takedown request, noting the video “violates the law(s) of Australia.”

According to the email, seen by CNN, X said: “We want you to have an opportunity to evaluate the request and, if you wish, take appropriate action to protect your interests.”

The AJA hasn’t taken the video down, because Adler believes it’s important for people to see.

“The reason we did that is because security issues are of critical interest to the Jewish community,” said Adler. “Politicians are not adequately taking the risks of extremism seriously enough. And one of the benefits of showing exactly what happened is a public awakening. Politicians often won’t act without public pressure and there needs to be a bit of an awakening about the risk.”

CNN contacted the eSafety office for comment about the AJA’s decision not to remove the video.

On Wednesday, the risks of extremism became apparent with a series of raids at 13 locations in Sydney by the Joint Counter Terrorism Team related to the church attack.

Seven youths, age 15 to 17, were arrested and five were helping police with their inquiries, Australian Federal Police (AFP) Deputy Commissioner Krissy Barrett told a news conference.

“We identified links between the alleged offender and a network of associates and peers who we believe shared a similar violent extremist ideology,” she said. “At this time, we have no evidence of specific locations, times or targets of a violent act.”

The arrests came as the heads of the AFP and Australia’s Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) gave a joint address to the National Press Club warning that the risks are extreme — and urging social media companies to work with police against forces seeking to radicalize children.

“Some of our children and other vulnerable people are being bewitched online by a cauldron of extremist poison on the open and dark web. And that’s one serious problem. The other is that the very nature of social media allows that extremist poison to spray across the globe almost instantaneously,” said AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw.

Musk versus Australia

Musk’s refusal to take down the videos resulted in Australia’s e-safety commissioner taking legal action on X to act or risk fines of up to 782,500 Australian dollars ($508,000) for each day of non-compliance.

On Wednesday, the parties were back in the Federal Court in Sydney, where X lawyer Marcus Hoyne made clear that the social media platform hadn’t changed its position and would fight what he called the commissioner’s attempted reach over an “exorbitant jurisdiction.”

He said X would file an affidavit from Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel, the cleric who was stabbed multiple times during the church attack, “stating that he is strongly of the view that the material should be available.”

Christ The Good Shepherd Church, where the attack happened, declined to comment when contacted by CNN.

Joanne Gray, a lecturer in digital cultures at the University of Sydney, said the e-safety commissioner’s attempt to extend the takedown orders beyond Australia’s borders was not an overreach.

“There’s a long history of platforms working with policymakers and civil society and different groups to moderate content, and Musk’s position is a deviation from that,” she told CNN.

Gray said taking down harmful material in the jurisdiction where it was published typically limits its spread and any potential harm caused, though conceded the system isn’t perfect.

Gray said Musk was trying to apply his stated belief in free speech absolutism to Australia, not to set a precedent for other platforms to follow.

“It’s extremely problematic that any individual has control over a communication platform that has the potential to reach a global audience in a way that is unaccountable,” she said.

Musk’s fight with the Australian government is one of many the billionaire is waging against authorities he accuses of imposing limits on free speech.

Since Musk bought X, formerly known as Twitter, in 2022, he has stripped back its content moderation and reinstated some previously blocked accounts, earning him strong support from loyal followers.

In a statement Wednesday, Australia’s eSafety commissioner said the takedown request wasn’t designed to stifle discussion about the church attack.

“The removal notice given to X Corp 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,” it said.

Musk’s supporters have applauded the billionaire’s stance in Australia and taken aim at his critics.

Lambie’s office confirmed there had been an increase in the trolling of her Facebook account, and Wednesday’s post was closed for comments in order to discourage more.

The court granted a further injunction requiring X to hide the violent material until May 10, when all parties will return to court.

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