Aussie Court Rules Publishers Liable for Facebook Comments

An Australian court ruled that newspapers and TV stations that post articles on Facebook will be considered publishers of the comments that Facebook users post, and therefore liable for them. Defendants in the original lawsuit — among them News Corp. and the Sydney Morning Herald — are considering an appeal. These two outlets noted that, “today’s decision means the media cannot share any story via Facebook without fear of being sued for comments which they did not publish and have no control over.”

The Wall Street Journal reports these defendants added that, “it also creates the extraordinary situation where every public Facebook page — whether it be held by politicians, businesses or courts — is now liable for third-party comments on those pages.” The companies also noted that, “the court’s ruling failed to acknowledge that Facebook doesn’t give media companies the ability to turn off comments.”

WSJ adds that, “the decision could also threaten social-media platforms like Facebook, which count on news articles for traffic and ad revenue.” The ruling follows another in April, in which “Australian authorities said they would require Facebook and Alphabet’s Google to pay local media organizations for their content.”

The court case was brought by Dylan Voller, “who was detained in a juvenile detention center and became the subject of media attention.” His lawyer Peter O’Brien reported that “media outlets posted on Facebook drew comments from other Facebook users falsely accusing him of serious crimes.” “With this strong commercial imperative driving them, it really is a no-brainer that the media companies lent their assistance to the publication of third-party comments,” said O’Brien.

University of Western Australia senior lecturer Michael Douglas, also a defamation lawyer, said “traditional media companies could be forced to beef up monitoring of third-party comments on their social-media posts.”

In Media Post, contributing editor Rob Williams noted that, with the Australian ruling, “media companies with operations in Australia need to be more mindful of the court’s ill-considered decision.” “Facebook does provide the ability to moderate comments, giving publishers some control over what appears near their stories,” he said. “That feature strengthens the argument that publishers are responsible for reader commentary.”

He added that, “in the U.S., Facebook has broad protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that effectively immunizes the company from what people say on its platform … [although] President Trump signed an executive order to weaken those protections amid a tiff with Twitter.”

“As Facebook and Twitter exercise more editorial control over user posts, they run the risk of weakening their Section 230 protections — possibly setting off a surge in defamation lawsuits,” he said. “If Australia’s ruling on Facebook comments withstands legal challenges, publishers in the country may request that Facebook permanently disable user comments. That would be a shame, since social-media commentary can help publishers gain insights into their audiences, much as letters to the editor have done for years.”