Aussie PM slams social media amid defamation law debate

SYDNEY • Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison lambasted social media yesterday 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.

The comments suggest he would favour making firms like Facebook liable for defamation with regard 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 judgement that has pitted Facebook and news organisations against each other and spread alarm among all sectors that engage with the public via social media.

That 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," Mr Morrison told reporters.

"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 spokesman did not directly respond to a Reuters question about Mr Morrison's remarks, but said the firm was engaging with the review. "We support modernisation of Australia's uniform defamation laws and hope for greater clarity and certainty in this area," the spokesman said. "Recent court decisions have reaffirmed the need for such law reform."

A representative for Twitter'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 (its) rules".

Since the court ruling, CNN, which is owned by AT&T, 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 before, 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 an Oct 6 letter 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.

No timeline has been given for how long the review might last.

New South Wales Attorney-General Mark Speakman, who is leading it, said media, social media and law firms attended three consultations in the past month.

The ongoing review 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.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 08, 2021, with the headline 'Aussie PM slams social media amid defamation law debate'. Subscribe