Australia is preparing for another showdown with Big Tech — this time over defamatory posts

Minister for Communications and the Arts Paul Fletcher addresses media in the Press Gallery at Parliament House on June 23, 2021 in Canberra, Australia.
Sam Mooy | Getty Images

Australia is preparing for another showdown with Big Tech — this time over abusive, defamatory posts published on their platforms.

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher told CNBC on Wednesday the country has been “at the forefront” of establishing legal and regulatory framework for social media giants, and plans to continue keeping them accountable.

In a landmark decision, Australia passed a law this year that requires Google and Facebook to pay local media outlets and publishers to link their content in news feeds or search results.

“Australia has leaned in on the issue of the regulation of social media, and we intend to continue to do so,” Fletcher said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia.”

What is being proposed?

Canberra is considering a range of measures that could hold social media firms more accountable for defamatory and abusive content posted onto their platforms.

“We expect a stronger position from the platforms. For a long time, they’ve been getting away with not taking any responsibility in relation to content published on their sites,” Fletcher said during an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Sunday.

The government was looking at “a whole range of ways” to crack down on the idea that whatever content is posted online can be done so with impunity, he said.

Fletcher told CNBC on Wednesday there was a consultation process under way looking at defamatory posts on social media and what kind of liabilities should the platforms have in relation to those posts. Australia’s defamation laws are reportedly being reviewed.

The minister also pointed out that Australia this year passed legislation that allows the country’s eSafety commissioner to order platforms to take down posts or materials deemed “menacing, harassing or offensive” by reasonable individuals.

‘Coward’s palace’

Last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison described social media as a “coward’s palace” where users can hide behind anonymity and “destroy people’s lives and say the most foul and offensive things to people and do so with impunity.”

In such instances, the social media companies should be treated as publishers, he said.

Australia’s highest court last month reportedly ruled that media outlets are “publishers” of allegedly defamatory comments posted by users on their official Facebook pages — that leaves them open to defamation suits.

But that ruling did not look at whether Facebook itself was liable, Fletcher told CNBC.

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