Australian High Court sets dangerous precedent on social media and defamation | #socialmedia | #education | #technology | #infosec

In a ruling last Wednesday, Australia’s High Court held news companies liable for third-party comments on their social media pages.

The decision by the country’s supreme judicial body establishes a dangerous precedent, which could be deployed not only against media corporations, but also political parties, alternative publishers and even private individuals. The ruling will curtail online discussion amid a broader campaign of internet censorship by governments and the ruling elites internationally.

The judgment was made in response to an appeal by several media conglomerates, including Nationwide News and Nine Entertainment. They challenged rulings in lower courts which declared them to be the publishers of all comments on their Facebook pages, including those they did not author, and therefore subject to defamation proceedings based on their content.

High Court of Australia (Source: Wikipedia)

The High Court ruling is part of a defamation action brought by Dylan Voller against the Sydney Morning Herald, now owned by Nine, as well as Sky News Australia and Nationwide News’ Centralian Advocate and Australian newspapers.

Voller, a young Aboriginal man, came to prominence in 2016 when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation published a “Four Corners” documentary, exposing the brutal and violent mistreatment to which he and other child prisoners were subjected at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory. Voller has courageously campaigned against the horrific conditions in the facility and others like it, and the broader police persecution of Aboriginal people. Like many other Aboriginal public figures, he has been subjected to racist and bigoted abuse online.

In 2017, Voller’s lawyers initiated proceedings against the media companies, alleging that he had been defamed in comments on their Facebook pages. Hearings since have centred on whether the news companies could be considered publishers of the comments. With the High Court ruling ending any avenues of appeal on this issue, future proceedings will focus on the comments themselves. The media corporations have very limited grounds of defence under Australia’s defamation laws, which are among the most stringent in the world.

The implications of last week’s ruling go far beyond the potential financial consequences for the multi-billion dollar media conglomerates. The High Court effectively declared the owners of any social media pages in Australia liable for defamation, based on content that they have little-to-no control over.

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