Australia

Facebook, Twitter push back on federal government ‘crackdown’

Facebook says it is open to defamation law changes and clamping down on anonymous users spouting abuse, as federal ministers have demanded in an online “crackdown”.

But the social media giant pointed out it already regularly assists the government in those areas.

Twitter also said it already takes action on legal requests about online abuse, in the face of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his deputy Barnaby Joyce insisting the tech companies need to do more.

“We support modernisation of Australia’s uniform defamation laws and hope for greater clarity and certainty in this area,” a Facebook spokesperson told The New Daily.

“We proposed that an effective regime could include a requirement that internet intermediaries assist complainants to be connected with the authors of potentially defamatory material, subject to a valid court order.”

Mr Morrison and Mr Joyce flagged a surprise crackdown on social media last week, hinting Australia could make tech firms responsible under defamation law for abusive comments posted on the platforms by users.

It followed unsavoury rumours about Mr Joyce’s daughter, which he ferociously denied.

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Mr Morrison. Photo: AAP

Mr Morrison said social platforms “should have to identify who [abusive users] are”.

But while neither he or Mr Joyce gave a firm indication of what could be on the cards, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher raised issues around anonymous abuse and whether social media platforms should need to supply more information for legal cases.

Facebook gently pushed back on the claims, noting the platform already handed over information to the government when asked.

A spokesperson pointed to data from Facebook’s transparency centre, which showed that between July and December 2020, the company had received 1417 requests from government for information about 1837 accounts.

In 80 per cent of those requests, “some data [was] provided”.

The numbers of legal requests have jumped dramatically in the past two years, from 1822 requests in 2019 to 2820 requests in 2020.

“Facebook responds to government requests for data in accordance with applicable law and our terms of service. Each and every request we receive is carefully reviewed for legal sufficiency,” the company said.

The Facebook spokesperson said it had already suggested to government that it could do more to help people worried about defamation online.

They said that, in a submission to the defamation review, the company suggested it could “assist complainants to be connected with the authors of potentially defamatory material”.

On Thursday, Facebook launched a new global set of policies on harassment and bullying.

One component will further protect “public figures” – including politicians and celebrities – from “degrading or sexualised attacks”, including photoshopped images and attacks based on negative physical descriptions.

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Facebook says it’s open to reform. Photo: AAP

Company sources claimed to TND that the platform had received no official approach from the government around the comments of Mr Morrison and Mr Joyce.

However, Facebook said it was open to reforming how defamation law works on its platform.

State and federal attorneys-general are currently reviewing defamation in Australia, following a High Court judgment that found publishers were liable for comments published by users.

“Recent court decisions have reaffirmed the need for such law reform, and we’ve taken steps to introduce new controls to support users managing conversations on Facebook,” it said.

“We are engaging with the broader industry on the review of defamation laws established by state, territory and federal attorneys-general.”

The current state of defamation law means Facebook often has to decide whether content is defamatory or would be judged so in a court of law, which is one of the areas the company is keen to see change.

Facebook said it removed 1.7 billion fake accounts worldwide in the last quarter, along with 31.5 million pieces of hate speech and 7.9 million pieces of bullying and harassment.

Twitter has come in for less specific criticism from the government on this matter, but has been heavily criticised around a prevalence of anonymous accounts – especially a very active following around Australian politics.

A Twitter spokesperson said the company worked with governments to address legal issues.

“Twitter exercises due diligence with respect to local laws in jurisdictions around the world, and duly reviews all legal requests,” they told TND.

“We support the swift removal of illegal content while balancing the need to protect freedom of expression.”

Twitter’s spokesperson said the company took action against anonymous accounts that spouted abuse.

“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 the Twitter rules,” they said.

“There is no room for abuse and harassment on our platform, and we make ongoing investments in this area to keep our users safe.”



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