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  • Giles Stuart - Tech Journalist

Defamation reform could re-evaluate how tech giants operate

With new defamation law changes taking place in Australia, Twitter, Google and Facebook would potentially be classified as publishers and therefore held accountable for everything written on their platforms by their users. The Australian attorney-general is in the process of updating the country's defamation laws so that social media giants must be accountable for anything displayed or distributed on their digital platforms. Representatives from Twitter, Google and Facebook have faced the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security as part of its inquiry into extremist movements and radicalism in Australia and were asked for their opinions on the work being undertaken by the attorney-general on the reform.

If digital platforms were to be treated as publishers and under a new defamation law, would they then be legally liable for the content written on their platforms in the same way that a media outlet would be liable if they published content that was defamatory in Australia?

Facebook Australia's head of policy Josh Machin said, "One of the policy principles that I think is really important when it comes to defamation, though, is to ensure that the responsibility primarily sits with the speaker, with the person who has control over what they are saying. Because if you have any misalignment between -- if you make another party responsible for something that someone is saying, then you have potentially the wrong incentives." Machin had been asked to consider what would happen if someone left a defamatory comment on Facebook and whether he felt that Facebook would therefore be legally liable under the new defamatory law.

He went on to say, "I'll tell you what we what we currently do. Firstly, we review them against our community standards. And if they violate our community standards, we'll remove that content. So if someone is saying something that represents hate speech, if it violates our bullying policies, we're able to remove straightaway, because that already violates the rules that we've set for the discussions that we have on Facebook." If any content posted on Facebook didn't violate their community standards, then they would look at a legal process that takes defamation law into account.

Machin said, "We consider if it is potentially defamatory, what the defences might be, and then the potential liability that could sit with us as well," he continued. "And certainly if we receive a clear court order that something is defamatory … we'll take steps to geo-block that content."

This new defamation law in Australia will mean that before anything is posted onto Twitter, Google and Facebook, there would need to be a vetting process, so that each word or phrase would need to be checked, so that the post didn't infringe on any comments that might be deemed defamatory. What that would mean is that before anything was posted onto a digital platform, someone representing that digital platform, would need to read the post before it went live. That would then slow down the process on instant comments and live debate, something that is already the 'heart and soul' of social media.

The faster technology seems to progress and makes things quicker, the slower the process of actually posting a comment, that now stands in the way of progression. We wait to see how this new law being considered in Australia will effect the way tech giants operate and whether the rest of the world follows suit.


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