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Australian High Court rules publishers are responsible for the Facebook comments left by users

The move will likely see more Australian publishers turn off and block comments to avoid liability.
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Australia’s High Court is redefining the notion of online liability with a ruling that says social media users are responsible for comments left by others, as well as what constitutes a publisher on the internet.

In the case, the plaintiff, Dylan Voller, an Aboriginal Australian sued a number of well-known media outlets for allowing their followers on Facebook to post comments that Voller alleges are defamatory.

Read the background to this case here and here.

And the High Court now rules that these media companies, as Facebook users, have indeed been liable for those comments left on the posts about their stories in 2016. The articles described the case of Voller, who had been detained in a juvenile detention center a year prior.

A video made undercover inside the facility showed the abused children there, including images of Voller stripped to his waist, with a hood over head, and with his arms and neck restrained to a chair.

But not all comments to the newspapers’ and broadcasters’ stories about the video were sympathetic towards Voller, with some Facebook users saying that he had been detained for violently assaulting a Salvation Army officer – something that proved to be false, reports out of Australia were saying on Wednesday.

The media outlets who found themselves in hot water over third-party comments defended themselves by saying that at the time, it was not possible to turn off comments on Facebook, while Voller never complained to them and asked for the contentious comments to be removed – in the past, receiving such requests and ignoring them is what would make outlets criminally liable.

And since Australia doesn’t precisely define who is and isn’t a publisher, today’s ruling sought to do just that, with a part of the verdict reading that, “by creating a public Facebook page and posting content, the outlets had facilitated, encouraged and thereby assisted the publication of comments from third-party Facebook users, and they were, therefore, publishers of those comments.”

Critics of the ruling say that it could stifle online conversations, and likely the willingness of media companies to allow them to develop freely, for fear of being held accountable because of third party comments.

Having thus “reshaped” this aspect of social media, the High Court will now get to the meat of Voller’s lawsuit and decide if those comments were defamatory in the first place.

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