How Australia struggled to get Elon Musk’s X to remove a terrorist attack video

Elon Musk took over Twitter in 2022, later renaming it X. (File Photo: Reuters)
Elon Musk took over Twitter in 2022, later renaming it X. (File Photo: Reuters)

Summary

Musk argues that agreeing to hide footage of the stabbing of a bishop from users worldwide would risk allowing any country to control the entire internet.

SYDNEY—When Australian regulators wanted Elon Musk’s X to remove videos of the stabbing of a religious leader, they sent their requests through a website multiple times. At first, automated replies came back.

Nearly 24 hours after submitting a formal notice to remove the video, an Australian official emailed an X executive directly to ask her how X was responding. She told him the social-media platform had “withheld" the video for users in Australia.

The account of the attempts by regulators to get X to remove the video was revealed in court filings in a lawsuit by the Australian eSafety Commissioner, which is arguing X hasn’t really removed the video because Australians can still use a virtual private network—which masks a user’s true location—to watch it.

Musk and X say Australia effectively wants the video taken down globally, which they say sets a dangerous precedent by giving one country control over the entire internet. On X, Musk said the platform had censored the content for Australian users and that the content is stored only on servers in the U.S.

The filings offer a glimpse into how regulators flag their requests to remove sensitive content from social-media platforms—and how X handles that process under the ownership of Musk, who has characterized himself as an advocate for truth and a campaigner against government censorship.

The Australian authorities saw the removal of the footage as urgent. They quickly deemed the assault on a bishop at an Assyrian church in Sydney a terrorist attack. The incident, which occurred on a livestream, led to a riot outside the church where police officers were injured, including one who suffered a broken jaw after being hit by a brick and a fence paling.

In the email sent by the Australian official, he complained that X’s system wasn’t easy to use. The online forms were clunky and unstable. In one instance, the email said, an investigator had to solve puzzles 10 times to submit a form, a possible reference to a security feature that makes sure the user isn’t a bot.

“Given that the portal is for law enforcement and government requests, the requirement for ease of use is very high," Toby Dagg, an official with Australia’s eSafety Commissioner, wrote in the email to an X executive who handles government affairs for Asia-Pacific. Dagg also wrote the regulator was “experiencing instability with the form," and wondered why.

X didn’t respond to a request for comment regarding the court filings.

Musk took over the platform then known as Twitter in 2022, pledging to make it into a haven for free speech. Numerous executives involved in safety and content moderation have left since then. In the U.S., some critics have accused the platform of allowing the proliferation of hate speech, an accusation that X has disputed.

In Australia, X’s lawyers have said the eSafety Commissioner’s notice to remove the video wasn’t legally valid and that X withheld, or geoblocked, the content for users in Australia as an act of good faith. X has also said it is removing content that praises or celebrates the attack. The eSafety Commissioner contends that, because Australian users can still see the video with VPNs, X hasn’t complied with its notice—which prompted the regulator to sue.

The litigation is pending, though an Australian judge has issued temporary injunctions requiring X to hide the video.

Other social-media platforms complied with Australia’s requests to remove the stabbing video, which some experts said reflected those platforms having more employees in the country who can quickly liaise with government officials and anticipate when requests are likely to come in.

“If somebody from the FCC wanted to get in touch with the X regulatory team in the U.S., yeah, they’d probably get a reply pretty quickly," said Rob Nicholls, a senior research associate at the University of Sydney who focuses on regulation and policy regarding social-media platforms.

Facebook owner Meta was also served with a formal notice to remove the content. The company has said it was already addressing the matter before it received the notice, and that it was working to “be responsive to the Australian government and act quickly to protect the Australian community from harmful content." Court filings say Meta blocked the content from Australian users, including those using VPNs. Regulators have said they are satisfied with Meta’s response.

The litigation with X could have been avoided had the company agreed to also block the content from VPNs, Nicholls said, though he added it’s now hard to say which side will prevail in court.

“If it was geoblocking with adequate VPN protection…then that would have been a much more reasonable position," Nicholls said. Instead, “it was geoblocking, that’s all you get, which was effectively inviting the eSafety Commissioner to say, well, that of itself is insufficient."

Authorities charged a 16-year-old boy in connection with the attack on the bishop. Police say they subsequently identified the boy’s associates who adhered to a “religiously motivated, violent extremist ideology," and this week charged five teenagers following counterterrorism raids.

The stabbing incident unfolded the night of April 15, when the bishop was speaking at Christ the Good Shepherd Church during the livestream. A video that circulated online showed a person walking up to the bishop and stabbing him several times, including in the face. The bishop survived.

The next day, an investigator with the eSafety Commissioner sent an informal removal request for 65 URLs that contained the video via X’s legal request portal, court filings said, though the exact time isn’t specified. Automated replies were received with ticket numbers, but there was no further response from X. So later on April 16, the commissioner issued the formal removal notice and sent it to X via a legal requests form at 2:35 p.m. The regulator got another automated email reply.

By about noon on April 17, the regulator hadn’t heard anything further from X, prompting Dagg to email X Asia-Pacific government-affairs executive Kathleen Reen at 11:57 a.m., as a 24-hour period for complying with the notice was expiring soon. The two held a call about 3:15 p.m. that day, and Reen emailed later in the day to say that X had “withheld" the URLs in Australia within 24 hours of receiving the notice.

Around that time, however, eSafety investigators used VPN technology to check each of the URLs in the notice and found that most of them were still accessible and contained the video.

On April 18, eSafety officials notified X that the video was still available using VPNs and that they didn’t consider X to be in compliance with the notice. On April 19, government lawyers sent another letter to X, saying the regulator was open to other technical solutions to ensure users in Australia couldn’t access the material, but threatened legal action if nothing else was done. The letter said X’s policy on its website indicated that violent content can and will be “removed," not merely geoblocked.

Later on April 19, X’s lawyers sent a letter to the regulator, saying that eSafety was essentially demanding that X remove posts globally, arguing the notice wasn’t legally valid and that X would oppose any legal proceedings.

“Putting the validity of the notice aside, X Corp. has complied with the notice by promptly making the content inaccessible to end-users in Australia with Australian IP addresses," the letter said. “X Corp. has therefore taken all reasonable steps to ensure the removal of the material from X for users within Australia."

On April 22, the following Monday, the regulator filed its lawsuit.

Write to Mike Cherney at mike.cherney@wsj.com

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