National Post (Latest Edition)

Australian PM slams social media amid defamation law controvers­y

- Byron Kaye

SYDNEY • Australia’s prime minister lambasted social media on Thursday as “a coward’s palace,” saying platforms should be treated as publishers when defamatory comments by unidentifi­ed people are posted, pouring fuel on a raging debate over the country’s libel laws.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s comments suggest he would favour making companies like Facebook Inc. liable for defamation with regards to some content posted by third parties, a position that could further cement Australia’s outlier status on the subject.

The country’s highest court ruled last month that publishers can be held liable for public comments on online forums, a judgment that has pitted Facebook and news organizati­ons against each other and spread alarm among all sectors that engage with the public via social media. That in turn has lent new urgency to an ongoing review of Australia’s defamation laws, with the federal attorney general this week writing to state counterpar­ts stressing the importance of tackling the issue.

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

“They should have to identify who they are, and the companies, if they’re not going to say who they are, well, they’re not a platform anymore, they’re a publisher. You can expect us to be leaning further into this,” he added.

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

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

A representa­tive for Twitter Inc’s Australian unit did not address the question of potential liability but said “anonymity or pseudonymi­ty is not a shield against Terms of Service violations, and Twitter will take action against any accounts that are in violation of the Twitter Rules.”

Since the court ruling, CNN, which is owned by AT&T Inc, has blocked Australian­s from its Facebook pages, citing concern about defamation liability, while the Australian arm of British newspaper the Guardian says it has disabled comments below most articles posted to the platform.

Australia has butted heads with Facebook previously, enacting a new law this year that forces it and Google to pay for links to media companies’ content.

Federal Attorney-general Michaelia Cash said in a letter Wednesday to state counterpar­ts that she had “received considerab­le feedback from stakeholde­rs regarding the potential implicatio­ns of the High Court’s decision.”

“While 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-purpose in the digital age remains critical,” said the letter which was seen by Reuters.

No timeline has been given for how long the review might last. New South Wales state Attorney General Mark Speakman, who is leading it, said media, social media and law firms attended three consultati­ons in the past month.

The review, which has been running through 2021, has published 36 submission­s on its website, including one from Facebook which says it should not be held liable for defamatory comments since it has relatively little ability to monitor and remove content posted under publishers’ pages.

While news outlets were among the first to criticize the ruling, lawyers have warned all Australian sectors which rely on social media to interact with the public are potentiall­y liable.

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

The leaders of the state of Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory, home to Canberra, are among those who have disabled comments from Facebook pages, citing the High Court ruling.

 ?? ROHAN THOMSON / GETTY IMAGES FILES ?? “Social media has become a coward’s palace where people can go on there, not say who they are, destroy people’s lives, and say the most foul and offensive things to people,
and do so with impunity,” says Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
ROHAN THOMSON / GETTY IMAGES FILES “Social media has become a coward’s palace where people can go on there, not say who they are, destroy people’s lives, and say the most foul and offensive things to people, and do so with impunity,” says Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

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