Tech companies like Facebook and Twitter could be sued for what users write under tough new Australian defamation laws

Facebook will be held responsible for what appears on its platform under new Australian laws (Photo by Drew Angerer, Getty Images)

Social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter will be treated like traditional publishers and broadcasters under a revamp of defamation laws, Attorney-General Christian Porter has revealed.

Opening a new front in the government’s battle with technology companies, Mr Porter said the playing field between established media companies and social media giants was not level.

Mr Porter has been spurred into action following what he labelled a “curious” defamation case ruling earlier this year that held media companies responsible for the comments made by readers on their Facebook pages.

The NSW Supreme Court found in favour of Dylan Voller – whose mistreatment in a Darwin youth detention centre sparked a royal commission – in ruling against News Corporation, Fairfax Media and Sky News, saying they had provided a forum and “encouraged” the comments.

Mr Porter said he wanted the implications of the ruling to be dealt with urgently as part of a suite of defamation law reform in conjunction with the states.

“My own view is that online platforms, so far as reasonably possible, should be held to essentially the same standards as other publishers but you have to, of course, take into account reasonably sensible measures for how you do that that account for volume because the volume of what goes on Twitter and Facebook is much larger,” he told the National Press Club.

“The playing field between digital platforms and mainstream media is completely uneven.”

Amid a campaign by media groups against government restrictions on press freedom, Mr Porter revealed the Commonwealth would advocate to push ahead with defamation law reform when attorneys-general meet on Friday week.

He said meaningful reform should consider introducing a serious harm threshold, clarify that the cap on non-economic damage sets the upper limit on a scale and canvass a New Zealand style defence of responsible communication on a matter of public interest.

Mr Porter said there was no reason the bulk of reforms could not be settled by mid-2020.

In response to other items on the press freedom agenda media companies are lobbying for, Mr Porter said the government would also overhaul the Public Interest Disclosure Act so that whistleblowers could more easily and readily understand it.

He also promised to act on Freedom of Information, suggesting there should be a triage process in place to help departments prioritise applications.