SYDNEY, Oct. 7 (Reuters) – Australia’s Prime Minister on Thursday denounced social media as “a coward’s palace” and said platforms should be treated as publishers if defamatory comments are posted by unidentified people, causing a heated debate over libel laws of the country.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s comments suggest that he would prefer to hold companies like Facebook Inc (FB.O) liable for defamation in relation to some third-party content, a position that further cement Australia’s outlier status in the field could.
The country’s highest court ruled last month that publishers could be held liable for public comments posted on online forums, a ruling that pitted Facebook and news organizations against each other and spread alarms in all sectors that interact with the public through social media.
This, in turn, has given a new urgency to an ongoing review of Australia’s libel laws.
“Social media has become a palace of cowards where people can go on, not say who they are, destroy people’s lives, and tell people the most nasty and obnoxious things, with impunity,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.
“They should have to identify who they are and the companies, if they don’t say who they are, well, they’re not a platform anymore, they’re a publisher. You can assume that we will keep leaning.” into it, ”he added.
A Facebook spokesperson did not directly respond to a Reuters question about Morrison’s remarks, but said the company was actively involved in the review.
“We support the modernization of the uniform Australian defamation laws and hope for more clarity and security in this area,” said the spokesman. “Recent court rulings have reaffirmed the need for such a reform of the law.”
Since the court ruling, CNN, which is owned by AT&T Inc (TN), has banned Australians from its Facebook pages and has been concerned about defamation liability on the platform.
Australia previously teamed up with Facebook and enacted a new law this year forcing it and Google (GoogL.O) to pay for links to content from media companies. Continue reading
Federal Prosecutor Michaelia Cash said in a letter to her counterparts dated October 6 that she had “received significant feedback from stakeholders on the potential impact of the High Court’s decision.”
“While I fail to comment on the merits of the court’s decision, it is clear that our work to ensure that the defamation law is fit for purpose in the digital age remains critical,” the letter read by Reuters was viewed.
No schedule was given as to how long the review might take. New South Wales Attorney General Mark Speakman, who heads them, said media, social media and law firms participated in three consultations last month.
The review, which ran through 2021, has posted 36 submissions on its website, including one from Facebook that says it shouldn’t be held responsible for defamatory comments as it has relatively few opportunities to view content published on the publisher’s pages monitor and remove.
While news outlets were among the first to criticize the verdict, attorneys have warned that any Australian sectors that rely on social media to interact with the public may be liable.
“The decision has a significant impact on those who run online forums … which allow third parties to post comments,” said a spokesman for the Law Council of Australia. “It’s not limited to news organizations.”
The heads of state and government of the state of Tasmania and the Australian capital territory, in which Canberra is located, have, citing the ruling of the High Court, deactivated comments on Facebook pages, among other things.
Reporting by Byron Kaye and Colin Packham; Adaptation by Lincoln Feast and Edwina Gibbs
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