‘Cowardly Palace’: Australian Prime Minister denounces social media amid defamation law controversy

CNN’s main Facebook page displays an error message when viewed from Australia, as shown in this screenshot taken on September 29, 2021. Social media website / via REUTERS

SYDNEY, Oct. 7 (Reuters) – The Prime Minister of Australia on Thursday called social media a “coward’s palace”, saying platforms should be treated like editors when unidentified defamatory comments are published, fueling a raging debate on the country’s libel laws.

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

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.”

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

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.

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.”

Tasmania’s head of state and Australian Capital Territory chief minister Andrew Barr were among those who turned off comments from Facebook pages, citing the decision.

The move was made “out of caution, because her page is not a government account, it’s a personal page,” a Barr spokeswoman told Reuters in an email.

High Court ruling could lead to “either flooding and so many libel cases filed it’s no fun, or people going the other way around and starting to turn off the ability to comment on Facebook “said Steven Brown, a defamation lawyer.

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

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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