back to article Australia rules Facebook page operators are legally liable for user comments under posts

Australia's High Court has ruled that companies running Facebook pages can be held liable for user comments on them, a ruling with severe consequences for any business with a presence on the Mark Zuckerberg-owned platform. In a case brought against a handful of news media publishers Down Under, Dylan Voller convinced judges …

  1. Eclectic Man Silver badge

    Innocent until proven guilty

    "Voller's case began after the Australian Broadcasting Corporation published pictures of him being hooded and shackled to a chair by police workers, highlighting the brutal treatment meted out to juvenile criminal suspects."

    I have to say that I sympathise with anyone photographed in that circumstance. It must be very humiliating for Voller not only to have images of himself treated like that, but to have, presumably unsympathetic, comments made about him as well. No I don't know what he was / is accused of or whether he is guilty, but the general principal of fair trials is that the defendant should be treated as innocent until proven guilty (at least in most countries).

    1. Diogenes

      Re: Innocent until proven guilty

      As always the ABC was pushing an agenda. If you read the other side of the story you may change your opinion

      1. jason_derp Silver badge

        Re: Innocent until proven guilty

        The other side of the story is that he's a victim of systemic abuse and a grade-A jerkoff because of it, and he's done stuff that warrants him being removed from the public. Doesn't really have a bearing on the comment above.

        Though I'd add that any sympathy felt towards Voller doesn't justify the decision made by the courts.

        1. The Central Scrutinizer

          Re: Innocent until proven guilty

          "A victim of systemic abuse and an A grade jerkoff because of it."

          How very fucking sensitive of you. Aboriginal people are way over-represented in jails in Australia, partly because of that systemic abuse. Heard of "Black Deaths in Custody", have we? The treatment given to him was absolutely outrageous, disgusting and over the top. I don't agree with the court's decision, but your comment barely hides your contempt for the vast number of Aboriginal people who have suffered appalling treatment at the hands of white man for over 200 years.

          1. jason_derp Silver badge

            Re: Innocent until proven guilty

            Buddy, you're sounding like you support the stuff Voller was convicted of. You don't get a pass for being abused your whole life, you get it for being rich.

            I didn't put any commentary on treatment of aboriginal people, because it wasn't necessary. Indigenous people get treated like shit by white people everywhere in the world, it's not a secret or some clever commentary if you don't or do mention it. Jesus.

      2. Precordial thump

        Re: Innocent until proven guilty

        That would be the agenda of being the only media agency in the country obliged by law to maintain a standard of factual accuracy, and to correct the record in case of errors.

      3. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge
        Stop

        Re: Innocent until proven guilty

        As always the ABC was pushing an agenda.
        Oh no an agenda! Spooky!

        In the case of ABC most normal people call it "searching for the truth".

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: Innocent until proven guilty

          Define "normal people".

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Innocent until proven guilty

            I was going to say "Australians" but... yeah, nah

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Innocent until proven guilty

      He had already been found guilty. The hood and shackles were to prevent him attacking and spitting on prison guards.

      He has already been paid substantial compensation, none of which has found its way to his victims.

  2. Mishak

    "Fewer reasons to go on Facebook"

    There are some?

    1. jake Silver badge

      Re: "Fewer reasons to go on Facebook"

      Well, no, of course not. The phrase was employed for rhetorical effect, I'm sure.

  3. jake Silver badge

    Out of curiosity ...

    ... Does Australia's High Court have facebook presence? Or any other so-called "social" media presence?

    If not, it seems to me this is legislation without representation.

    If so, I hope their censors editors have plenty of red pencils, and overtime has been authorized.

    Just sayin' ...

    1. jonathan keith Silver badge

      Re: Out of curiosity ...

      You're wrong.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Out of curiosity ...

        We thank you for your detailed analysis.

        1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge
          Headmaster

          Silver linings

          At least you're was used correctly. However, that's the only positive I can find.

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Out of curiosity ...

      I don't know about the justices concerned but I'm sure all the Oz politicians will have. Expect legislation soon although, as Gareth says, it'll be left laid around as a common law precedent to be quoted elsewhere.

    3. jezza99

      Re: Out of curiosity ...

      This case was covered today in the Sydney Morning Herald. It is actually a straightforward extension of existing precedent in defamation law, and so is quite robust from a legal standing.

      The High Court has determined that an organisation which publishes pages on Facebook are also publishers of associated comments, from a legal perspective. Note that the publisher is not the same as the author.

      The judgement isn't about the defamation per se.

      Personally I think it is time that social media platforms were required to identify the posters behind the vile comments that some seem to think are acceptable so that they can be sued directly. But that is a different issue.

      1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

        Re: Out of curiosity ...

        Have to wonder, why the downvote here?

      2. Jaybus

        Re: Out of curiosity ...

        And that straightforward precedent is based on the common-law principle stated in the article:

        "...that every intentional participant in a process directed to making matter available for comprehension by a third party is a 'publisher' of the matter upon the matter becoming available to be comprehended by the third party."

        So, why did it stop with the page admin? Certainly Facebook is itself an intentional participant in that process by providing the media on which the matter is made available, and so Facebook, too, is a 'publisher'.

        This case could be a huge issue for Facebook in the US (which also has a common-law legal system). If ruled a publisher, they would lose their 'platform' status exemption under the Communications Decency Act and be treated like every other publisher. In other words, they could be sued based on content, including third-party content.

        Personally, I think that perhaps this was the only decision the High Court could make, given the Australian laws, but it is a horrible decision for free speech. It will effectively force page admins to simply stop allowing comments in order to protect themselves.

  4. mark l 2 Silver badge

    I don't know about the Aussie legal system, is the High court actually the highest court, or can this be appealed further up the chain? As I suspect Zuckerburg would be happy to spend a few minutes of Facebooks profit to pay for lawyers to fight this one.

    Plus what would be defined as a business, what about a charity or none profit would they also be liable for post from third parties on their Facebook page?

    1. Diogenes

      It is the highest court in Australia, like the US supreme court

    2. chrisw67

      Decisions on appeals by the High Court are final.

      The court has interpreted the law as it stands. The only way to change this law is through legislation, and then hope that it is sufficient to survive the next challenge. I am sure the lobbying started some time ago.

    3. SundogUK Silver badge

      Zuckerborg probably doesn't care. This may lead to a slight reduction in objectionable click-bait attracting ad revenue but it also seems to reinforce the idea that Facebook is a platform not a publisher and therefore not liable for said objectionable click-bait.

    4. Cuddles Silver badge

      "As I suspect Zuckerburg would be happy to spend a few minutes of Facebooks profit to pay for lawyers to fight this one."

      Why would be want to? The ruling is that third parties who sign up to Facebook can be held liable for things posted by other third parties. This is pretty much everything Facebook could ever have wanted; instead of Facebook potentially being on the hook for moderating posts, it's now officially someone else's problem.

  5. ChrisHS

    Awful treatment inside & out.

    Unfortunately comments will just get switched off as too much effort to moderate.

    That allows the cretins to avoid being tracked down & prosecuted.

    His treatment wasn't the minimum you'd expect anyone to receive.

    Worth reading:

    https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-12-12/dylan-voller-evidence-nt-royal-commission-four-corners-don-dale/8112126

    https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-12-08/nt-government-fails-to-delay-witnesses-at-royal-commission/8103524

    1. elsergiovolador Silver badge

      Re: Awful treatment inside & out.

      Unfortunately comments will just get switched off as too much effort to moderate.

      I don't think such opportunity to control public opinion further would go to waste - that is getting PR houses to post tailored comments designed to produce certain outcomes. Currently they often disappear in the noise, but the new law means these firms would get their comments pre-approved.

      Being cynical I think government couldn't just tell social media companies - look we don't like what your users post. Censor everything! But if they created an environment where user comments are a liability, then suddenly it is a different ballgame.

      Now government can reject accusations of censorship and at the same time they will be able to "create the perception, whether it is true or not". Do you see the pattern unfolding around 5 eyes?

    2. Blergh
      Coat

      Re: Awful treatment inside & out.

      Unfortunately comments will just get switched off as too much effort to moderate.

      I don't see problem with that. If only that was the approach used for the whole of Facebook and social media at large.

      erm... kind of like... this comment too... err...

  6. Imhotep Silver badge

    Dear Editor

    The news companies deliberately stoke controversy to increase views. To me, their behavior is equivalent to inciting an online riot to increase their profits.

    Let them moderate the comments and take responsibility for what they publish. Too much work? Then disable comments. No loss for most of what I'm seeing posted on news sites.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Dear Editor

      I'll second that!

      I have to severely limit what I read in news website comment sections, the level of animosity, stupidity and hypocrisy demonstrated by a lot of posters is breathtaking and seems to create, in me at least, some sort of animosity feedback loop.

      After taking some major time off from looking at these posts, upon my return I noticed the little bursts of anger that would result from reading a particularly uncivilised, or just plain factually wrong post. I know from previous experience that (sort of like the terminator) a lot of these posters can't be reasoned with and absolutely will not stop, even in light of valid citation disproving their assertions.

      I've come to the similar conclusion that the papers, and really by extension the government, are just in the business of provoking emotional responses these days rather than being interested in factual evidence based reporting. It's a truly sad and unnerving state of affairs.

      1. Imhotep Silver badge

        Re: Dear Editor

        Yes, I had someone call me a Russian Propagandist. After I linked to the articles with the information I cited, he said they didn't say what I said and I could continue to <vacuum> Putin's <male sexual organ>.

        That is pretty much where you just walk away.

        *I have never met Mr. Putin, performed the act described on anyone, or knowingly disseminated Russian propaganda. I may be an idiot, but not a particularly useful one.

    2. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      NETIZEN IN READER 'RIOT' STORM

      An internet user was under fire today after likening Register readers to an "online riot."

      In a wide-ranging attack on those who seek out information online and post comments, Imhotep suggested they were easily manipulated by the media. The answer? Censorship.

      "Let them moderate the comments," said Imhotep.

      DO YOU AGREE? ARE YOU A RIOTER? Like, subscribe, follow, share, click, unclick, retweet and comment below!!!11~

      1. jake Silver badge
        Pint

        Re: NETIZEN IN READER 'RIOT' STORM

        ::heh::

      2. YetAnotherJoeBlow Bronze badge

        Re: NETIZEN IN READER 'RIOT' STORM

        As my grandfather said "the truth hurts" - He was a judge in a state supreme court.

        This is the least toxic forum out there - reporting truthful, and entertaining.

        Another example of the woke losing a debate so they try censorship. Yep that is me - I am a rioter!

        1. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge
          WTF?

          Re: NETIZEN IN READER 'RIOT' STORM

          I can't work out what "wokeness" has to do with the High Court of Australia interpreting legislation

          1. jake Silver badge

            Re: NETIZEN IN READER 'RIOT' STORM

            You honestly can't see where personal opinion affects the way Judges interpret Law?

            I'm glad I'm not afflicted by that kind of myopia.

            1. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge

              Re: NETIZEN IN READER 'RIOT' STORM

              So that you're aware; the High Court of Australia doesn't have most of the problems for which the Supreme Court of the US is world famous.

              1. jake Silver badge

                Re: NETIZEN IN READER 'RIOT' STORM

                What the fuck does that have to do with my comment?

                Or are you claiming that there are never any dissenting voices within the High Court of Australia? If so, that would be very, very scary.

                Probably a bad case of Whataboutitis ... take two bop pills and call me in the morning.

        2. StewieGriffin

          Re: NETIZEN IN READER 'RIOT' STORM

          "Woke losing a debate so they try censorship"

          From my experience reading the comments in the daily rags in the UK I have to say that for the apparently "non-woke" commenters, "winning" quite often involves insulting someone who has raised a perfectly valid criticism/point/fact/perspective and various degrees on the spectrum above. You can almost hear them with their fingers in their ears going "La la la, I'm not listening to you, you are threatening my belief system!!! you dick - fuck off".

          This type of behaviour obviously exists on the other side of the political divide but I feel I see it more keenly utilised on the right.

          E.g. Since I'm Scottish (and have a lifetime interest in Scottish Politics) the Daily Mail is treasure trove of anti Scottish Government commenters and stories and I have noticed that, by and large, the biggest and most venomous opinions come from those who have next to no understanding of what they are talking about other than the snippets (and opinions) fed to them by the poisonous rag in question.

          1. Missing Semicolon Silver badge

            Re: NETIZEN IN READER 'RIOT' STORM

            However, if the reporting of Scottish politics was balanced, there would be no need to read dodgy rags to get anything else but a hagiography of the current leadership.

  7. elsergiovolador Silver badge

    Back to the roots

    Could that be the end of Facebook and boom of self-hosted personal blogs in Australia?

    Let's see what Betteridge's law of headlines says...

    1. jake Silver badge

      Re: Back to the roots

      "Could that be the end of Facebook"

      Don't be daft. Facebook could drop out of Oz completely and not see a blip in their profits. Nor their prophets, both the employed ones and the volunteers.

      " and boom of self-hosted personal blogs in Australia?"

      Of course not. That would be hard, and people would have to actually learn something.

      1. Marcelo Rodrigues
        Gimp

        Re: Back to the roots

        "

        " and boom of self-hosted personal blogs in Australia?"

        Of course not. That would be hard, and people would have to actually learn something.

        "

        Not to mention that, if I got it right, THEY would be responsible for the comments posted there...

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Back to the roots

          I haven't read the full judgment, but from the article and the quotes in the article, there's a lot of references to commercial entities and Facebook. It makes me wonder how narrow or wide this judgment might be. Of course, if it's treated as precedent and case law, it might/could/will be applied to other platforms too.

  8. Arty Effem

    At another level, that ruling could make Facebook liable for everything appearing anywhere on its site, regardless of its source.

    1. SundogUK Silver badge

      It literally says that the account holder is responsible and therefore Facebook isn't. I actually agree that Facebook should be sue-able but that isn't what this ruling is saying.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        But as the OP said, it could be argued that Facebook is the ultimate account holder on the platform and everything else is "3rd party comment". I'm sure lawyers will be looking very closely at all possible implications of this ruling.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    People, what ever you do, don’t read the comments!!

    Too late!

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Never using Facebook

    One of my proudest decisions.

    </smug>

    1. jake Silver badge

      Re: Never using Facebook

      Are you similarly proud of not shitting on your kitchen floor?

      When I were a lad, folks weren't proud of common sense ...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Never using Facebook

        You don’t know whether I HAVE shat on my kitchen floor!

        So, nurrrrr

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: Never using Facebook

          Your evasion of the actual question noted.

  11. martinusher Silver badge

    Its only a little country

    (Sorry Australians....but read on and you'll see what I mean.....)

    Australia is a continent sized country -- its bigger than the continental US -- but it has a relatively small population, 25 million or so, with an economy to match. By regional standards its "barely registering" compared to neighbors like Japan, Philippines or Indonesia. Despite this it's government keeps on pretending that this is the Imperial Era where the cultural and economic dominance of Britain was reflected in Commonwealth countries like Oz. These days are behind us, though, so now global companies like Facebook have to weigh the risks and costs of doing business in Oz against the potential reward. The country is not "too big to fail" so the government needs to modulate its approach accordingly. (UK also take note....)

    Incidentally, I'm not a Facebook fan since its purpose is a form of mass traffic analysis -- its the ultimate spyware. It is what it is, though -- its widely used so just saying "It shouldn't be allowed' is a waste of breath. User comments are part of its business model and, yes, they're going to include a fair spread of abusive and unpleasant material. The solution to this is to remove the mask, to require comments to be treated like any other published material with users unable to hide behind a pseudoname and guarantees of anonymity.

    1. lglethal Silver badge
      Go

      Re: Its only a little country

      Umm actually Australia's economy is one of the biggest in the World. According to the IMF, Australia's GDP ranks 12th in the World. Japan is the 3rd largest economy, Indonesia 16th, and the Phillipines 32nd. Not bad for a country of only ~25 million.

      So yes, we're a small nation, but the wealth of the nation is quite high. That also means that Australians have relatively high disposable income (compared to Indonesians or Filipinos) which makes them much more attractive to the likes of Facebook and other international corporations.

      So actually decisions taken in Australia can have an effect on multinationals, and other nations...

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: Its only a little country

        "According to the IMF, Australia's GDP ranks 12th in the World."

        How far will that drop when you stop selling fossil fuels to Asia's smoke-belching factories?

        1. lglethal Silver badge
          Go

          Re: Its only a little country

          Not so far, because we have plenty of Uranium to sell to thei replacemernt nuclear power plants.

          And I'm assuming you're talking about their coal power plants, because as a rule factories dont burn fossil fuels unless your talking about Diesel generators, and Australia doesnt produce any Diesel.

          How far will the US fall, when China starts calling in your trillions of dollars of debt?

    2. SundogUK Silver badge

      Re: Its only a little country

      "UK also take note..." The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world, out of 213 listed. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(nominal)) What is it with people thinking that because we are no longer the worlds largest empire etc. we are suddenly insignificant?

      1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

        It's always the same thing. Take the Olympics - only the gold winner ever gets a mention afterwards (and not for very long at that).

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Its only a little country

        England is just a tin-pot little country on the arse-end of Europe. Good for laundering/obfuscating money but offering very little else. Of course its inhabitants suffer from a grandiose notion that it has political or military clout under the guise of GB/UK . But it's little more than a paper tiger now. That can do little on its own without a nod from the US. It cannot even equip its own aircraft carriers without the help of the USMC.

      3. tiggity Silver badge

        Re: Its only a little country

        @SundogUK

        .. Expect that position to drop

        Wait until next year when Brexit effects have even more impact as various transitionary agreements expire.

        Still, COVID gave government a potential get out of jail free card as will blame everything on that & gamble that enough people will believe them

  12. Medixstiff

    If Dylan James Dudley Voller is reading this, Please stop giving WAPOL officers my address.

    In July 2020 I started receiving OHMS and other letters assigned to Dylan James Dudley Voller.

    I sent them back RTS as per usual but by September 2020 I got sick of continually getting them, so I did a Facebook check on his name and found three pages for him.

    One was his artists page, one his personal page that had not been updated in years and one about how he was going to get on with his life.

    I then used Western Australia's eCourts page and using his Facebook details found that he had multiple court cases for no authority to drive, assaulting a Police Officer and driving an unregistered vehicle.

    So I ended up going to Mandurah Police station and they stated they would stop them coming through.

    Everything was fine for a few months, then they started up again.

    Fast forward to three weeks ago and I was speaking to my next door neighbour who is Aboriginal - and a great bloke - and found out that Dylan is his ex-son in law, which is how he got my address in the first place. I also found out other things about him and why he is no longer the son in law.

    1. jake Silver badge

      You can relax.

      He isn't reading here. He doesn't even know this place exists.

      Even if he did, why would he pay any attention to your post?

      1. Medixstiff

        Re: You can relax.

        I was being sarcastic of course.

        The guy is a huge waste of space. He threatened to kill his own kid and had to take off from W.A. because the Police were after him and his wife's family didn't take to kindly to his threat about his own child.

  13. Tron Bronze badge

    This is not about Facebook.

    This is the implementation of censorship on web 2.0 content through the threat of prosecution on the grounds of vicarious atonement - making you responsible for something someone else has done.

    It uses pre-internet legislation to crack down on the net by not taking into account the fundamental shifts that have taken place in social norms following the development of online services. It effectively drags us back to a pre-internet age by criminalising an entire generation of tech.

    This is why we need to migrate internet technologies from a centralised topology to a distributed one, and quickly. This shift has been prevented by GAFA using their dominance and patents, as they were happy with their lot. Now, the vulnerabilities of the centralised model are evident and present an existential threat to them and to all the web 2.0 services that we use online.

    This is not about Facebook or Australia. Our technology is under attack and we need to design our way around the threat that this action poses, or we will lose a chunk of functionality fundamental to the future of the net.

    At present, the UK does the sensible, honest thing and prosecutes people who break the law on social media. But new legislation on online 'harms' is in the offing and they may just decide to follow Australia.

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