By Byron Kaye
September 29, 2021
SYDNEY, Sept 29 (Reuters) – CNN said it is preventing Australians from accessing its Facebook Inc (FB.O) pages after a court ruled that publishers can be liable for defamation in public comment sections and the social media firm refused to help it disable comments in the country.
The move makes CNN, which is owned by AT&T Inc (T.N), the first major news organisation to pull its Facebook presence in Australia since the country’s highest court ruled this month that publishers were legally responsible for comments posted below articles – even if the articles themselves were not defamatory.
The ruling has come under much fire with defamation lawyers accusing Australia of not keeping up with technological change and noting the contrast with the United States and Britain where laws largely protect publishers from any fallout from comments posted online.
Australia is currently reviewing its defamation laws but in the meantime, other global news organisations, especially those that feel they can easily live without an Australian Facebook audience, are likely to follow CNN’s lead, the lawyers said.
“This is the first domino to fall,” said Michael Bradley, managing partner of Marque Lawyers.
For Australian media companies, the ruling also adds a layer of complication to their relationship with Facebook, just as many of them begin to benefit from a new law that forces the social media company to pay for links to their content.
CNN’s main Facebook page showed an error message when accessed from Australia on Wednesday. The U.S. news organisation said Facebook declined a request to help it and other publishers disable public comments in the country following the ruling, which was made during an ongoing defamation lawsuit.
“We are disappointed that Facebook, once again, has failed to ensure its platform is a place for credible journalism and productive dialogue around current events among its users,” a CNN spokeswoman said in a statement.
A Facebook spokesperson said recent court decisions had shown the need for reform in Australian defamation law and the company looked forward to “greater clarity and certainty in this area”.
“While it’s not our place to provide legal guidance to CNN, we have provided them with the latest information on tools we make available to help publishers manage comments,” the spokesperson said.
As in most of the world, social media is a central channel for distributing content in Australia and about two-thirds of its population of 25 million are on Facebook. About a third of Australians said they used Facebook to source news, a University of Canberra survey taken at the start of 2021 showed.
But there has also been an explosion in defamation lawsuits, and state and federal chief lawyers are conducting a wide-ranging review into whether existing rules are appropriate for the internet age, and whether the rules fairly take into account whether or not a person has been harmed.
In a submission to that review in May, an industry group representing Facebook and other internet platforms said liability for defamation should remain with content “originators” since they could more easily monitor and delete offending content.
Mark Speakman, the attorney general for the state of New South Wales who is working on the review, said resolving the question of liability in online forums was a priority.
“Getting the balance right on any reform is crucial to balancing freedom of expression with the right of a person to protect their reputation,” he said in an email.
“Australia is among Western democracies an outlier, in relation to the circumstances in which media organisations and any user of social media can be liable for content they didn’t they themselves write or approve of,” he said.