Australia to make social networks potentially accountable for content

Australia Prime Minister announced the government wants social media platforms to reveal the identity of malicious users and make them responsible for the content published if they don’t. But the implementation of the law will not be short of challenges.

Scott Morrison, Prime Minister of Australia
“I want to make sure Australians are safe online” said Scott Morrison, Prime Minister of Australia on a press conference about a new law to make Facebook, Twitter and the likes accountable for comments published on their platforms | © All rights reserved, November 2021

On November 28, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a new law would be built to tackle online trolling on social media.

The text is supposed to be drafted and presented to the parliament early next year. But drafting and implementing a law on the responsibility of content published online may seem common sense but doesn’t come without any challenges.

The objective is to make social media companies like Facebook and Twitter considered as publishers if they cannot identify authors behind defamatory or trolling content. They could be legally accountable for the content published on their platforms.

The new law would allow courts to force media companies disclose the identity of users, which would then allow defamation cases be brought in court.

Furthermore, Scott Morrison considers that “digital platforms must have proper processes to enable the take down” of defamatory content.

But Facebook could argue a process already exists. In Vietnam, Facebook even shut down a network that maliciously used the process by mass reporting content or profiles to be taken down.

Moreover, details about users may not be correct when people can register via a simple email or change their IP addresses through virtual personal networks (VPNs), and appear outside of Australia.

Then, users could be wary of giving out personal details since users’ information is the basis of Facebook’s business model. And they are even more likely to give wrong information when they intend to troll someone.

A law in India challenged over privacy rights

And then, also come privacy rights, which a company like Snapchat or several messaging apps advocate for. A law requiring the possible identification of users at anytime would force companies to store personal data.

In India, Twitter or Facebook can be considered as publishers and lose their role as intermediary platforms if they don’t abide by a Federal law passed last May. In a country that actively blocks Internet access for political motives, it requires platforms to remove content at the request of authorities within 36 hours and identify the person first responsible for posting viral content.

But WhatsApp, a company owned by Meta, filed a lawsuit to the High Court of Delhi against the government for a violation of privacy rights. The company argues such request would require the messaging app to store all personal data and the history of messages about all its users in case a request comes.

Australian Prime Minister said he would be ready to challenge social media companies in court if they refuse to release personal data.

A response to Australia’s High Court ruling

Moreover, by putting the responsibility of content on platforms, the new law is expected to go against a recent justice decision in Australia.

Attorney-general Michaelia Cash considers that “the reforms will also ensure everyday Australians and Australian organizations with a social media page are not legally considered publishers and cannot be held liable for any defamatory comments posted on their page, providing them with certainty“.

This statement made clear this was in response to the High Court ruling about the Voller case.

Dylan Voller is a former youth detainee whose detention was documented on a TV program. He brought a civil case for defamation against Fairfax Media, Nationwide News and Sky News claiming news publications should have known there was a risk for defamatory observations on the articles posted online about him.

In September, the High Court ruled that news media were responsible for third party comments on their Facebook pages. It upheld the New South Wales Court of Appeal decision from June last year.

Removing responsibility of page owners for comments on Facebook posts

Right now, if organizations post a news story on their page, the news media would be considered responsible for the comments made by third users on the post. The same would happen for an individual managing a Facebook page.

After the High Court decision, CNN then decided to remove access to Australian users from their Facebook page because of risks of defamation cases.

Australia has been actively trying to regulate online activity. Last year, a new law made Facebook and Google pay news publishers for using their content in news feeds and search results. In February, Facebook banned news to be shared on its platform in Australia for a few days before retracting the move.

In July, Christian Porter, minister for Industry, Science and Technology at the time, wanted social networking sites to request parental permission before children can open an account. But he also conceded such a law would be difficult to draft and implement, hoping Facebook would agree without the need of a legislation.

Read more about Australia

Combatting online trolls and strengthening defamation laws, Prime minister of Australia, November 2021, Free access

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