World

Australian prime minister blasts social media as 'coward's palace'

Platforms should be treated as publishers of any defamatory comments posted, he says

SYDNEY : Australia's prime minister yesterday lambasted social media as "a coward's palace", saying platforms should be treated as publishers when unidentified defamatory comments are posted, pouring fuel on a raging debate over the country's libel laws.

Mr Scott Morrison's comments suggest he would favour making companies like Facebook liable for defamation with regards to some content posted by third parties, a position that could further cement Australia's outlier status on the subject.

The country's highest court ruled last month that publishers can be held liable for public comments on online forums, a judgment that has pitted Facebook and news organisations against each other and spread alarm among all sectors that engage with the public via social media.

That in turn has lent new urgency to an ongoing review of Australia's defamation laws, with the federal attorney-general this week writing to state counterparts stressing the importance of tackling the issue.

IDENTIFY

"Social media has become a coward's palace where people can go on there, not say who they are, destroy people's lives, and say the most foul and offensive things to people, and do so with impunity," Mr Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

"They should have to identify who they are, and the companies, if they're not going to say who they are, well, they're not a platform anymore, they're a publisher. You can expect us to be leaning further into this," he added.

A Facebook spokesman did not directly respond to a Reuters question about Mr Morrison's remarks, but said the company was actively engaging with the review.

"We support modernisation of Australia's uniform defamation laws and hope for greater clarity and certainty in this area," the spokesman said. "Recent court decisions have reaffirmed the need for such law reform."

Since the court ruling, media giant CNN, which is owned by AT&T, has blocked Australians from its Facebook pages, citing concern about defamation liability, while the Australian arm of British newspaper The Guardian says it has disabled comments below most articles posted to the platform.

Australia's Attorney-General Michaelia Cash said in an Oct 6 letter to state counterparts that she had "received considerable feedback from stakeholders regarding the potential implications of the High Court's decision".

"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," said the letter, which was seen by Reuters.

The Australian Capital Territory's Chief Minister Andrew Barr was among those who have disabled comments from their Facebook pages, citing the ruling. - REUTERS

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