Aus Gov to introduce new bill making social media platforms liable for defamation by ‘online trolls’

The Federal Government will be introducing a bill that it says will target anonymous “online trolls” and strengthen defamation laws, with the draft legislation expected to be released during the week.

Significantly for publishers, the proposed legislation will reverse the recent High Court of Australia decision that found that the social media pages of news outlets were publishers of comments made, meaning they may be liable for defamatory comments made on the respective social media platforms.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the press conference announcing the bill (credit: Scott Morrison’s Facebook page)

In a media statement, Attorney-General Michaelia Cash said: “Since the High Court’s decision in the Voller case, it is clear that ordinary Australians are at risk of being held legally responsible for defamatory material posted by anonymous online trolls.

“This is not fair and it is not right. Australians expect to be held accountable for their own actions, but shouldn’t be made to pay for the actions of others that they cannot control.

“The reforms will make clear that, in defamation law, Australians who operate or maintain a social media page are not ‘publishers’ of comments made by others.”

As a result of the High Court decision, CNN restricted its Facebook pages in Australia.

Cash continued: “Social media providers should bear their fair share of responsibility for defamatory material published on their platforms. This reflects the current law.

“However, if defamatory comments are made in Australia, and social media providers help victims contact the individuals responsible, it is appropriate they have access to a defence.”

The other two changes the bill seeks to make is requiring social media platforms to establish a standardised complaints system and a new Federal Court Order which will allow user who feel that they have been attacked anonymously online to request the true identity of the perpetrator.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “We cannot allow social media platforms to provide a shield for anonymous trolls to destroy reputations and lives. We cannot allow social media platforms to take no responsibility for the content on their platforms. They cannot enable it, disseminate it, and wash their hands of it. This has to stop.

“These will be some of the strongest powers to tackle online trolls in the world.

“Anonymous trolls are on notice, you will be named and held to account for what you say. Big tech companies are on notice, remove the shield of anonymity or be held to account for what you publish.

“In a free society with free speech, you can’t be a coward and attack people and expect not to be held accountable for it.”

Reset Australia released a media statement critical of the proposed legislation, arguing that “troll hunting isn’t the solution to social media’s hate problem”.

Reset Australia’s executive director Chris Cooper commented: “The most pressing problem here is not trolls, it is the disproportionate reach of their content enabled by the algorithms of social media companies that prioritise sensational, outrageous and conspiratorial content – the form which defamatory content usually takes.

“Forcing social media companies responsible for coughing up the identity of individuals does not hold the platforms accountable for their profit-making amplification that enables that content to go viral.

“Online anonymity does protect trolls from accountability, but it also is an important tenet of a free and open internet that protects critics of the powerful which can hold leaders accountable.

“We cannot throw away anonymity and the protection it provides vulnerable communities, for the sake of reining in trolls who mostly are only able to cause harm because of social media platforms that profit from amplifying their content.”

The bill comes after minister of defence Peter Dutton successfully sued refugee activist Shane Bazzi for $35,000 in damages over a six-word Tweet, which alleged that Dutton was a “rape apologist”. Bazzi tweeted from an account with his name on it, not anonymously.

Mumbrella has contacted Meta (formerly Facebook), Twitter, and Snap for comment. TikTok declined to comment.

This article has been updated. 


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