The High Court of Australia, the apex court in the country, has ruled that entities with social media pages or sites will be responsible for defamatory comments posted by others, including anonymous posters. Dismissing the petitions by several Australian media houses, the High Court on Wednesday said that the media outlets are “publishers” of defamatory comments posted by third parties on their official pages on social media platforms like Facebook.
Any entity with a social media account or page is considered ‘liable for adverse material in the comments sections’, said the court judgement.
The High Court delivered this contentious judgement in a 5-2 majority in a petition filed by one Dylan Voller, who had sued several media houses for adverse comments about him posted by social media users on the Facebook pages of media houses. It is notable that the alleged defamatory comments were not made by the media houses, but ordinary social media users on the pages of the media houses.
Dylan Voller was detained in a juvenile detention centre in 2016, and shocking visuals of the bad condition of the centre had gone viral after they were published by media houses. The media houses had posted these stories on their Facebook pages, as part of their normal practice. But in 2017, Voller had sued those companies, arguing that comments left on their Facebook pages in reaction to these stories were defamatory. He had argued that by inviting these comments, the news outlets were legally their publishers. He wanted to sue several companies over this alleged defamation, including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Centralian Advocate, Sky News Australia and The Bolt Report.
Although this is a highly contentious argument, multiple courts had already agreed to it earlier, including Supreme Court of New South Wales in 2019 and the New South Wales Court of Appeal in 2020. The latest verdict by the High Court finally settles the matter, establishing that media companies are indeed “publishers” of third-party content posted on their social media accounts, and can be held liable for any defamatory content by anyone.
This verdict will have far reaching impact on free speech and sharing of information, as the media companies will be forced to either shut down their social media pages, or disallow comments by others to avoid getting sued for any random third-party comment. Lack of the ability to comment on a news story means inability to discuss it, which leads to more awareness about a topic. Moreover, alert social media users will also not be able to point out fake or misleading stories published by media houses.
Australia is known for draconian online regulation. Earlier this year, the country had passed a law requiring social media and IT companies to pay to media houses for new reports shared on their platforms by users. It had led to Facebook temporarily blocking Australian users from posting news articles, to avoid paying the charges to the media companies. The law was later amended and tech companies were allowed to negotiate with media companies on the payment terms, after which Facebook had restored the ability to share news reports.
Interestingly, while the earlier law benefited the media companies and forced the tech companies to make payments to them, the current verdict will become a major concern for media companies that run social media accounts. Moreover, the current verdict does not hold the social media companies responsible for the third-party comments.