COMMENT:

The removal of millions of videos from Facebook and YouTube within 24 hours of the Christchurch terrorist attack illustrates the difficulty in moderating content on the site.

By the time those videos had been removed, anyone who had wanted to watch the clip had already watched it. The reactive approach to removing harmful comment had once again proven hopelessly ineffective.

This isn't the first time this has happened. Over the years, we've seen random acts of violence, murder and sexual assault published and live-streamed on these sites – and it will happen again.

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Neither Facebook nor YouTube have given any indication that they will suspend live-streaming until their systems can better ensure that the videos uploaded respect the decency and censorship laws, not only of New Zealand but elsewhere in the world.

Until now, many politicians have simply relegated the issue of social media regulation in the "too difficult" category.

This, however, wasn't the case for Germany, which last year started enforcing a law that could see big tech companies facing fines of as much as 50 million euros (NZ$80 million) if they failed to delete posts featuring hate speech or fake news.

Speaking to the Herald last year, US-based academic Siva Vaidhyanathan noted that this strong-handed law is often what is necessary to push the big tech companies toward changing their policies.

"Only when they are restricted by law in other places in the world do they institute controls," Vaidhyanathan says.

"Facebook has been very effective at filtering out anti-Semitic and Holocaust denial propaganda from its German-language services."

Critics were quick to point out that this could lead to an infringement of free speech, but German politicians, still living in the long shadow of the Nazi era, weren't willing to gamble of having hate spread through its society again.

When Vaidhyanathan spoke to the Herald, he hoped that New Zealand might take an international leadership role like it did in the fight against nuclear proliferation, saying you don't have to be big to make a difference.

"Perhaps a country like New Zealand could lead the way in experimenting with responses to Facebook in a way a large, diffuse country, like the United States, cannot."

The only question is whether our lawmakers have the stomach to take on the challenge and introduce meaningful change the rest of the world is likely to follow.

So far, politicians have shown little appetite for introducing changes that could truly hit the big tech companies in the pocket.

This was evidenced recently with the revamp of privacy laws. Despite repeated calls from Privacy Commissioner John Edwards for broader power to levy fines to $1m for companies that ignore breach notices, the revamped law gave him no such power – meaning he'll have to settle for writing strongly-worded remonstrations, and the power of publicity to embarrass those to violate privacy law. With all the negative press Facebook and Google have been getting, it's questionable how much more they can be embarrassed.

But the Christchurch shooting has shifted things and there are already signs of governments ramping up efforts to hold these companies accountable for what they publish.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for live-streaming to be suspended on social media and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern plans to take the issue up directly with Facebook.

"This is an issue that goes well beyond New Zealand but that doesn't mean we can't play an active role in seeing it resolved," Ardern said on Sunday.

Whatever that resolution involves, it will hopefully involve monetary penalties for the media companies at the centre of this controversy. Because Facebook and Google will be far less likely to let a little hate or racism slip in here or there if it's likely to hit their hefty profits.