Australian Prime Minister slams social media amid defamation law controversy

By Byron Kaye

SYDNEY (Reuters) – The Prime Minister of Australia on Thursday called social media a “cowardly palace”, saying platforms should be treated like editors when defamatory comments from unidentified people are published, fueling a raging debate over the country’s libel laws.

Comments from Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggest he would be in favor of companies like Facebook Inc being liable for defamation in relation to certain content posted by third parties, a position that could reinforce Australia’s aberrant status on the topic.

The country’s highest court ruled last month that publishers can be held accountable for public comments on online forums, a ruling that has pitted Facebook and news organizations against each other and alarmed all sectors that interact with the public through them. social media.

This in turn has given new urgency to an ongoing review of Australia’s defamation laws, with the Federal Attorney General writing to his state counterparts this week stressing the importance of tackling the issue.

“Social media has become a palace of cowards where people can go out there, not say who they are, destroy people’s lives and say the grossest and most offensive things to people, and do it with impunity.” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

“They should have to identify who they are, and companies, if they don’t want to say who they are, well, they’re not a platform anymore, they’re a publisher. You can expect us to tell us. lean more into all of this, “he added.

A Facebook spokesperson did not respond directly to a Reuters question about Morrison’s remarks, but said the company was actively engaging in the review.

“We support the modernization of Australia’s uniform libel laws and look forward to greater clarity and certainty in this area,” the spokesperson said. “Recent court rulings have reaffirmed the need for such law reform.”

A representative for the Australian unit of Twitter Inc did not address the issue of potential liability, but said that “anonymity or pseudonym is not a shield against violations of terms of service, and Twitter will take action against any account that violates Twitter rules. “

Since the court ruling, CNN, which is owned by AT&T Inc, has blocked Australians from its Facebook pages 09-29, citing concerns over defamation liability, while the Australian branch of UK newspaper The Guardian said it had disabled comments under most articles posted on the platform.

Australia has clashed with Facebook before, enacting a new law this year that requires it and Google to pay for links to content from media companies.


Federal Attorney General Michaelia Cash said in an Oct. 6 letter to her state counterparts that she had “received considerable feedback from stakeholders regarding the potential implications of the High Court ruling.”

“Although I refrain from commenting on the merits of the court’s decision, it is clear (…) that our work to ensure that defamation law is fit for the digital age remains critical,” said the letter which was seen by Reuters.

No timeline was given for how long the review could last. New South Wales State Attorney General Mark Speakman, who heads it, said media, social media and law firms participated in three consultations in the past month.

The review, which lasted until 2021, posted 36 submissions on its website, including one from Facebook which said it should not be held responsible for defamatory comments because it has relatively little ability to monitor and remove content posted under publishers pages.

While the media were among the first to criticize the decision, lawyers have warned that all sectors in Australia that rely on social media to interact with the public are potentially responsible.

“The decision has important implications for those who operate online forums … which allow third parties to comment,” said a spokesperson for the Law Council of Australia. “It is not limited to news organizations.”

The rulers of the state of Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory, home to Canberra, were among those who turned off comments from Facebook pages, citing the High Court ruling.

(Reporting by Byron Kaye and Colin Packham; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Edwina Gibbs)

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