News outlets may be held liable for defamatory comments to articles posted on social media sites, an Australian court ruled on Monday.
The decision could effectively prevent news outlets from posting articles on social media at all, which could disrupt user consumption of news, social media, and advertising.
“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,” defendants including News Corp Australia and the publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald said in a statement. “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 defendants said they were considering challenging the ruling, handed down by the highest court in the Australian state of New South Wales, in the country’s supreme court.
The case was initially brought by Dylan Voller, who alleged that articles published about him on Facebook drew defamatory comments accusing him, without basis in fact, of various crimes.
“With [a] 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,” Voller’s attorney Peter O’Brien told reporters.
Social media companies and advertisers depend in part on traffic created by news articles to keep consumers on media platforms, while news outlets depend on social media for greater exposure. Advertising revenue that has traditionally propped up news outlets has migrated to social media in recent years. To combat the phenomenon, Australia has already decided to compel media companies including Alphabet and Facebook to pay local news outlets for content posted online.
The debate over liability protections for social media companies flared up in the U.S. last week, after Twitter chose to place a fact-check label on a series of tweets by President Trump. The president subsequently signed an executive order calling on the Federal Trade Commission to clarify what types of online speech are exempted from liability under current U.S. communications law.
Attorney General William Barr said at the signing of the order that a change in liability protections would most likely need to be advanced through legislation.