back to article Australian PM and Deputy threaten Facebook and Twitter with defamation liability for users' posts

Big Tech's Australian lobby has "bolstered the governance" of The Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation, after the nation's Prime Minister and Deputy PM both lashed Facebook and Twitter for doing too little to prevent anonymous trolls. Australian Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce last week penned …

  1. JamesTGrant

    Postal

    I guess the postal service is a good analogy, ‘we just deliver what folk post’. You don’t sign the letter - you’re anonymous. There are laws governing the letter contents, idk if they are the same as a fb message. But sending letters requires effort and FB trolls are a whimsical bunch, for a start you have to know what to put on the envelope. Perhaps it’s the financial cost of posting letters that puts people off, also probably more so it’s the effort and delay.

    Anyway, this specific problem is trivially easy to solve - whitelist(allow list) corespondents: ‘you have a message from a new corespondent: ‘Anon Meanie’ would you like a preview of the message (it likely contains unfriendly content)? Or shall I bin it?’.

    1. DS999 Silver badge

      Re: Postal

      The problem isn't private messages, it is posts and comments that are made in public.

    2. Precordial thump

      Re: Postal

      Only the analogy breaks down when you realise that your local postie doesn't open and read all of the messages they deliver, enlarge the font on sentences they think are important, and offer to deliver you copies of similar letters they think you'll find interesting, based on the content of the letters that you've received and sent.

      Faecebook quit Australia in 2020 rather than pay authors of news for linking to their content, albeit for about 12 hours. Best 12 hours all year, in my opinion. Imagine how many toys they'll throw out of the pram when the law requires them to behave like adults and moderate their content.

      I say their content, because they have a world full of opinion to choose from and then select content to match the eyes looking at it. The act of selection, free of any obligation to fact, becomes authorship with that power in your hands.

      1. Mark 65 Silver badge

        Re: Postal

        I was going to make a similar comment that the old common carrier argument falls down when you read and block content that you don't agree with (rather than just plain old illegal). Once you start down the track of moderating content you can therefore be held accountable for what you let through.

        1. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Re: Postal

          This is the "Compuserve vs Cubby" and "AOL vs Cyberpromo" argument redux

          And WHY the USA has "safe harbour" laws. Otherwise if you curate content, you're in the firing line

          In other countries, common carrier arguments have never been tested

    3. John Robson Silver badge

      Re: Postal

      I think an advertising company - pasting a message onto a billboard - is a better one.

  2. Denarius Silver badge

    Indeed. I note that the controllers of antisocial media block news they disagree with, regardless of its sources. So they have a dilemma. Allow the rabid unrestricted along with the very unfashionable or if they pick and choose, accept that they are publishers. The phone system analogy holds up here.

    1. Graham Cobb Silver badge

      No. They don't "block news they disagree with". There are plenty of views FB disagree with on their platform.

      They block news which violates their community standards, if and when they notice it. And, sure, they make mistakes.

      As technologists we all know that moderation at scale is really hard and will always be incomplete and even inconsistent. If you try to automate it, the algorithms will probably be wrong more than they are right (like blocking the famous Vietnam war picture as child abuse). And if you make it human-based it doesn't scale and it is inconsistent (one man's "relevant historical facts", can be another man's "racist stereotypes").

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        If the service needs moderation and moderating it at scale is not feasible than the service itself should be considered infeasible.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          No simply have all posts referred to the Lord Chancellors Office for approval before publication.

          If they can't keep up that's surely a sign that the crown is infeasible

        2. doublelayer Silver badge

          Then this forum too should be shut down immediately. I have no sympathy for Facebook, and if the law could just kill them, I'd like the results. However, it applies to a lot of places and they too have a moderation problem. We've seen posts here which could offend somebody. The moderators get to some of the egregious ones eventually, but not within seconds which is all it takes. There are others which stay up. If they could be sued for anything I or you said, they probably wouldn't be able to justify the risk they're taking on by having this forum in which we can do so.

          1. Mark 65 Silver badge

            @doublelayer: the difference is that El Reg aren't pimping those hateful posts as things you might like, adding them to a feed or selling advertising off the back of them.

        3. Trigonoceps occipitalis Silver badge

          Legal Fees

          Make the social net work fund the notoriously expensive legal fees when the target of a post sues - with no right to claim costs if they win.

        4. Graham Cobb Silver badge

          That is a separate question. Personally, I think the answer is to make the service much less promiscuous - reduce the number of posts that an individual can share, make the likelihood of seeing a shared post exponentially decline with the distance from the original poster, make the likelihood of contacts seeing a shared post exponentially decline with the number of posts the sharer has previously shared, etc.

          In other words, make the service much more like neighbour/friends conversations and less like a broadcast medium.

      2. Denarius Silver badge

        @Graham: thank you for demonstrating my point.

      3. TheMeerkat Bronze badge

        If you “moderate news” in any shape of form, you are a publisher.

        So the choice is - either social media companies do not moderate anything or they take responsibility for every comment posted.

        1. Graham Cobb Silver badge

          Rubbish. El Reg can disallow any comments they don't like, without taking responsibility for the rest.

  3. Denarius Silver badge

    dunno

    whitelisting only works if recipient has a small known number of senders. As the recent and continuing SMS spam deluge demonstrates, it wastes much time blocking the multitude of fake numbers, even if Google do claim to help

  4. -martin-

    The problem with social media is anonymity - enforce person-user relationship and lots of these problems go away.

    1. Zenubi

      ^^ THIS ^^

      1. tiggity Silver badge

        No, anonymity is needed, otherwise people suffer, a lot.

        e.g you ae gay in a country where this could lead to prison or death, anonymous social media lets you get a support network, if your id is known then you get nasty consequences

        A person who was abused by violent partner, if they need to use real id then violent partner can track them down.

        etc, etc.

        Anonymity needed for so many reasons, that's just a couple of examples....

    2. Potemkine! Silver badge

      "Anonymity is a shield against the tyranny of the majority"

      1. ecofeco Silver badge

        Beat me to it.

    3. iron Silver badge

      To hell with people who can't come out, who have an abusive ex-partner, whistleblowers, etc.

      You don't need anonymity so they can all go to hell. Probably literally in some cases.

    4. Roj Blake

      Do away with anonymity and you also do away with the ability to criticise repressive regimes from within the country. You also do away with the ability to interact with fellow aficionados of any embarrassing "special interests" you might have.

  5. sreynolds

    As opposed to...

    I can't tell the comments of Facebook and twitter apart from the vitriol that spews forth from Sky News. No chance that he would ever go after his mate Rupet.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: As opposed to...

      But if we can only stop Facebook publishing lies we will all be able to concentrate on the fair and balanced Fox News output

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "The platform must be held liable. If they enable the vice, they pay the price,"

    This feels like a totalitarian in the making. Even a catchy jingle to sing while they protect you from all the enemies they told you about.

  7. Howard Sway Silver badge

    Unintended consequences

    If they made FB liable for defamation in user posts, I might be persuaded to sign up. Just for the occasional bit of FB profit reduction now and then when I got bored. You could even start making "you-defame-me-and-I'll-defame-you" agreements with other people and both pocket the cash.

    1. AMBxx Silver badge
      Joke

      Re: Unintended consequences

      You're obviously an idiot.

      Your turn :)

      1. Howard Sway Silver badge
        Devil

        Re: Unintended consequences

        That'll be £5 please.

        I lied about the I'll-defame-you part.

  8. Andy The Hat Silver badge

    One small step ...

    My defamation is your truth ...

    The press was on this publishing merry-go-round some years ago and it's a dangerous 'freedom of speech' tightrope to walk ...

    One great problem is the lack of attribution to or acceptance of responibility by an individual or the company.

    Perhaps if Facebook (for instance) split into carrier and publisher, the responsibility for individual posts could fall back onto defined individuals (where it should be), and extraeous 'published' material would be the responsibility of FB. Any untruths posted could be sorted out in court targetting the correct source. If nothing else decisions of law should be made by the court, not decided by a media company.

    1. Graham Cobb Silver badge

      Re: One small step ...

      1) It doesn't scale.

      2) I don't want the courts interfering in my discussions with my friends.

      The real problem is that FB & T have turned "chats down the pub" into "global opinion wars" by disseminating posts widely and pretty indiscriminately.

      1. Robert Grant Silver badge

        Re: One small step ...

        These points surely apply to Facebook too.

  9. jonathan keith Silver badge

    You keep using that word...

    "Social media has become a coward's palace, where people can just go on there, not say who they are, destroy people's lives and say the most foul and offensive things to people, and do so with impunity," the PM said, adding "Now that's not a free country where that happens."

    Sounds entirely free to me. Horrible, but free.

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: You keep using that word...

      Free from what?

      This is a variation on the "Me freedom to extend my fist stops short of the end of your nose" classic.

      If a country has freedom to defame than it lacks freedom from defamation. What you have in reality is not limitless freedom but a choice of incompatible freedoms.

      1. jonathan keith Silver badge

        Re: You keep using that word...

        Actually, I entirely agree with you. Rather, I hoped to illustrate (as if it was even needed) the unfettered idiocy of that rogue and charlatan Scott Morrison.

        1. Denarius Silver badge

          Re: You keep using that word...

          bit harsh, He is a politician after all and the plebs have such low expectations

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: You keep using that word...

          If emphasis is put on one part of his statement then I find it hard to disagree with, and that is the bit where he states "with impunity". Sure, you should be free to say what you like, but I don't see why you should be free of the consequences of what you say if what you say falls foul of the law. You either have a defamation law and enforce it or we all go around claiming each other is a kiddy fiddler and ruining lives.

      2. Roj Blake

        Re: You keep using that word...

        "This is a variation on the "Me freedom to extend my fist stops short of the end of your nose" classic."

        Try telling that to Clint Eastwood' friend Clyde the Orangutang.

  10. Fred Daggy
    Mushroom

    WOPR

    "A strange game. The only winning move is not to play." - Joshua/WOPR

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Printer's Imprint

    Here in the UK we have a thing called Printer's Imprint, which is an old and somewhat out of date but still useful pice of legislation. It requires whoever prints almost all publications in the UK to put their name and address on the document, and to keep a copy of the document for six months marked up with the name and address of whoever paid them to print the document (unless said requester already put their name and address in the document).

    It seems to me a similar scheme could work online too. If a twitter or FB or whatever account has an associated 'real' name and address associated with it, then that person can be sued for libel or prosecuted for racism or whatever. If the account is anonymous or the details are wrong then twitter or FB etc should be liable for the content and can be sued or prosecuted in the same way. That might concentrate minds enough to make most of the problems go away.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Printer's Imprint

      > then that person can be sued for libel or prosecuted for racism or whatever.

      Where?

      If you post something and it's read in the UK can you be sued in the UK?

      What about Saudi, China, America, etc etc

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Printer's Imprint

        Yes, clearly there are details to work out, but that's all your questions are. If I'm a named person publishing something then I [should] get a choice of where it is published (i.e. under what legal system as well as my own). If I'm anonymous then the publisher takes responsibility for deciding where to publish it bearing in mind that they might get prosecuted.

        So I for one, if I ever publish anything other than as an Anonymous Coward, would likely choose to restrict publication to the UK, or maybe Europe as well. Not USA, Saudi or China. And the world might become a somewhat saner place as people choose to restrict how widely they publish their rants.

      2. Mark 65 Silver badge

        Re: Printer's Imprint

        Facebook should just stop moderating anything and fall back on common carrier principles. However the advertising money might dry up a touch soon when it quickly descends into a rabid cauldron of hatred.

    2. doublelayer Silver badge

      Re: Printer's Imprint

      Ah, the classic "abolish anonymity" response from someone who doesn't mind using it themselves. It's a terrible idea and any government that attempts it is intensely worrying.

  12. Winkypop Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Scotty from Marketing and Beetroot say what?

    Just more bluster from two of the most irrelevant politicians Oz has ever had the displeasure of suffering.

    Scotty just wants to distract from his many failings.

    Beetroot is just as mad as a cut snake on a hot tin roof.

  13. msobkow Silver badge

    It's my *daughter*, and damnit, I want *revenge*, regardless of what is sane or logical. :(

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    With the legislative techlash snowballing globally I doubt the internet will look or operate the same in 5 years' time.

  15. MachDiamond Silver badge

    Anonymous?

    If you have an account and can post things on Twitter/FB, they know exactly who you are with nary an exception. Joe Public might not be able to figure it out, but an attorney would be able to get the info in a hot second.

    I don't know why anybody would want an instapintatwitface account, but there are plenty of things I don't know. I go to university on and off to find out more things to not know anything about.

  16. Neoc
    Facepalm

    Hmmm... Leaving aside whether FB and its ilks are moderated or not (I point you to the various AI, expert systems, etc...)

    You post something on your website and idjits uses the comments to make a malicious remark... not your fault.

    Your ENTIRE BUSINESS is premised on people posting remarks, then I'm sorry but you ARE responsible for what people post. IT'S LITERALLY YOUR BUSINESS.

    <sorry about the shouting. It may have been in the back of my mind for a while now>

    Yes, yes, people are going to make parallels with the post office. Who don't decide what mail you should see/receive based on an obscure algorithm; and who, more importantly, move your mail without looking into it to decide whether they can monetise the contents.

    1. doublelayer Silver badge

      "You post something on your website and idjits uses the comments to make a malicious remark... not your fault. Your ENTIRE BUSINESS is premised on people posting remarks, then I'm sorry but you ARE responsible for what people post. IT'S LITERALLY YOUR BUSINESS."

      First, that's incorrect; the laws generally say that it's not even if your business relies on people posting. But more importantly, most suggested changes to the law, and in fact almost all of the possible ways of implementing it, would not get you to that state. It is quite hard to define whether a company's business is related to users posting content, and people could make arguments either way. You could argue, for example, that this site has such a business model; although they look like a newspaper, they also have a community of commentors, topics unconnected to the news articles, and make advertising attracting people with those things. Even more so for a site where you post things for free and allow comments. Usually, the suggested changes to laws end up saying that everybody is responsible for something their server sends, with no distinction attempting to target things like Facebook. You can try to make a third law which draws a line down the middle, but know that you aren't joining many others who favor a much more black and white approach to either side.

  17. KBeee Silver badge
    Facepalm

    (Movie Trailer voice) This Time It's Personal

    Strange, I never think of Aussies (even politicians) as being thin skinned.

    But then you hear about one trying to prosecute a comedian for taking the piss out of him, then trying to change the law so that The Government can define who is or is not a satirist, and leave said satirists open to defamation prosecutions etc.

    Makes you wonder what they'd have done if one of them had been replaced by a bucket of lard like Have I Got News For You did once to a non appearing UK politician.

    Probably best to stick with The Juice Media's Honest Government Ads to get a true view of Oz government, though The Government also had a go at stopping them.

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