News ‘They are on the hook’: Government plans social media ‘troll’ crackdown

‘They are on the hook’: Government plans social media ‘troll’ crackdown

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Facebook and Twitter would have new obligations under the proposed law. Photo: Getty
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Social media companies would be liable for hefty defamation payments if they refuse to provide contact information about those posting abusive comments online, under what the Coalition government calls “world-leading” laws to crack down on internet trolling.

Under the proposed changes, social media companies would have to hand over phone or email contact information if a defamation litigant requests it for legal processes.

But Prime Minister Scott Morrison declined to say what would happen if trolls simply ignore communications, hinting that Facebook and Twitter may need to invent a “voracious way” of identifying anonymous users.

“If the online company can’t tell us who it is, then they are liable,” the PM said on Sunday.

“Otherwise, they’re the ones who are going to get the the case brought against them.”

Mr Morrison and Attorney-General Michaelia Cash announced wide-reaching changes to defamation law as it relates to social media.

Under the government’s plans, flagged in the wake of online rumours spread about deputy PM Barnaby Joyce’s daughter, social media companies would have to identify anonymous users so that legal proceedings could be brought against them.

Scott Morrison and Senator Cash. Photo: AAP

Other separate but linked changes would see media outlets and other businesses freed from defamation liability for comments posted by third-party users on their pages, and the user instead made liable.

The social media companies would also have liability; if a defamation suit was brought against a specific user who was unable to be identified, the social platform itself could be sued.

“They are the publishers at the end of the day,” Mr Morrison said on Sunday.

“People are responsible for what they say and do and where the digital companies provide a digital shield to those who would seek to engage in that behaviour, then they are on the hook and we will be coming after them.”

Government sources later explained that, since social media companies collect users’ emails and phone numbers for log-in purposes, it would be simple for those companies to provide that information to litigants.

Despite government members in previous parliamentary committees suggesting social media users be required to provide 100 points of identification to open or maintain accounts, Mr Morrison said the new bill did not contain that proposal.

At the PM’s press conference, The New Daily asked what would happen if an anonymous user simply ignored legal emails or calls.

“It is in the social media company’s interests to make sure that they have a very voracious way of ensuring that they can actually tell people who this is. Otherwise, they’re the ones who are going to get the case brought against them,” he said.

Mr Morrison said the government wanted “the social media companies to fix this” and that exact mechanisms would be “up to them” – hinting that the legislation may not contain specific mechanisms on what information platforms should collect and how they collect it.

Facebook and Twitter have been pushing back on government calls to unmask anonymous users in recent weeks.

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The PM said social media platforms would be “on the hook” for defamation. Photo: Getty

The social media giants have said they have no interest in collecting further databases of personal contact information, and both have made the case that certain users – including whistleblowers, political activists, and LGBTIQ people – may have good reasons for wanting to preserve their anonymity.

However, Facebook previously told TND it supported updates to defamation law online.

TND contacted spokespeople for Facebook and Twitter for comment. Neither responded by publication time.

The government’s eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman-Grant told a Senate estimates hearing in October 2020 that requiring 100 points of ID to use social media would be “very challenging” to manage.

“How do they practically go back and do that … it’s not impossible, but it creates a range of other issues,” she said.

Ms Inman-Grant also questioned if enforcing a “real names” policy on social media would stamp out all abuse and bullying, noting “there are a lot of trolls out there who aren’t interested in hiding their identity at all. So, it’s not always going to be a deterrent”.

The government’s proposal would compel social platforms to set up a “nominated entity” in Australia, which could deal directly with complaints about defamatory content.

Mr Morrison said some people may be satisfied if content was simply removed, but if complainants wanted to pursue legal action, then platforms would have to provide contact information for the person who posted that content.

If the person posting the content does not consent to their information being released, the Federal Court would be able to make an order to compel the platform to release that information.

Mr Morrison said the government would be actively looking for “test cases” in the courts, in order to set legal precedents on how the Coalition believes the laws should be applied.

Ms Cash said it was “just an unsettled area of law” that the government was seeking to bring in line with other applications of defamation law.

The legislation, which has not yet been publicly released, is said to contain “protections” for whistleblowers wanting to preserve their anonymity, and to prevent “vexatious” cases.

An exposure draft will be released in coming days before a consultation period.

Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said she would move for a Senate committee to examine the proposal.

She admitted Australia had “clearly a big problem” with online abuse, and supported greater regulation of tech giants.

“The question today is whether the Morrison government has come up with a workable solution to actually address online harms or if it is just more election-time huff and puff,” Senator Hanson-Young said.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese said he too supported the spirit of the government’s proposal, but raised concerns about how the changes would be applied.

“The government needs to explain how it can deal with the fact that domestic controls have limitations for what is a global industry,” he said.

“What we don’t want is someone shutting down an account in Australia and opening one internationally with a global ISP address that isn’t available here in Australia.”

Mr Albanese said Labor supported greater protections against online abuse, and added that “it shouldn’t be beyond the capacity of social media to be able to identify people who are engaged in inappropriate activity online”.

He also called on the government to take greater action on online misinformation – including on COVID and vaccines – by some conservative members of the Coalition.