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Australian law chief wants defamation rules fixed for digital age | News

Attorney general pushes for reform after the court finds news outlets liable for defamatory comments on their social media posts.

Australia’s top legal officer has urged her state counterparts to redraft the country’s defamation law after the Australian High Court ruled that publishers of social media posts are liable for readers’ comments.

Michaelia Cash, the federal attorney general, made the appeal in a letter to her state counterparts, the Reuters news agency reported on Thursday.

The appeal follows a High Court judgement last month that said Australian news outlets are responsible for defamatory comments posted by readers on their social media posts.

The ruling sent shockwaves through the industry.

Media giant CNN, which is owned by AT&T, has now blocked Australians from its Facebook pages, while the Australian arm of British newspaper The Guardian says it has disabled comments below most articles posted to the platform.

Elected leaders of two states and territories have also turned off their Facebook comments.

The ruling has added a sense of urgency to Cash’s review of the responsibility of hosts of internet forums have in defamation complaints.

She is conducting the review along with her eight state and territory counterparts.

“I have received considerable feedback from stakeholders regarding the potential implications of the High Court’s decision,” Cash wrote in her letter.

“While I refrain from commenting on the merits of the Court’s decision, it is clear from stakeholder reactions … that our work to ensure that defamation law is fit-for-purpose in the digital age remains critical.”

The review would enable “closer consideration of appropriate protections for individuals and organisations with social media accounts, including in relation to defamatory materials posted by third parties”, Cash wrote.

She added that she would “support defamation law reform remaining on the … agenda”.

The review, which has been taking place throughout 2021 and has published 36 submissions on its website, will also examine whether Facebook should be liable for users’ defamatory posts.

The social media giant, in a submission to the review, contended it should not be held liable since it has relatively little ability to monitor and remove content posted under publishers’ pages.

Facebook was not part of the court case over defamatory user comments.

The case, which is ongoing, involves Fairfax Media Publications, Nationwide News and Australian News Channel.

Former juvenile detainee Dylan Voller had sued the three media businesses over allegedly defamatory comments posted on the Facebook pages of their newspaper and television programmes.

Voller had said that after stories referring to him were posted on the news companies’ Facebook pages, a number of third-party users made defamatory comments.

He alleged that the news outlets were liable as the publishers.

The High Court agreed.

“The acts of the [media companies] in facilitating, encouraging and thereby assisting the posting of comments by the third-party Facebook users rendered them publishers of those comments,” Justice Rothman found last month.

The case will now return to the New South Wales Supreme Court to determine if any of the comments defamed Voller.

Following the High Court ruling, News Corp Australia, which owns the two broadcast programmes and two of the three newspapers targeted in the defamation case, called for Australia’s defamation law to be changed.

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