Australian PM slams social media amid defamation law controversy

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Canberra

Australia’s prime minister lambasted social media on Thursday as “a coward’s palace”, saying platforms should be treated as publishers when defamatory comments by unidentified people are posted, pouring fuel on a raging debate over the country’s libel laws.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s comments suggest he would favour making companies like Facebook Inc 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 judgement 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.

“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,” 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 spokesperson did not directly respond to a Reuters question about 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 spokesperson said. “Recent court decisions have reaffirmed the need for such law reform.”

Since the court ruling, CNN, which is owned by AT&T Inc 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 has butted heads with Facebook previously, enacting a new law this year that forces it and Google to pay for links to media companies’ content.—Agencies

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