Facebook VP says individuals should be held responsible for defamatory comments

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Facebook’s Vice President of Policy Solutions, Richard Allan, has spoken out following the landmark ruling in Australia that found media companies may be responsible for the Facebook comments on their pages, rather than the individual commenter.

Allan, who is based in London, told the Sydney Morning Herald that Facebook believes individuals should be held responsible for any defamatory content they post.

“As a general matter we think individuals should be held responsible for the content they publish, so if an individual posts defamatory content they should be held accountable,” he told the publication.

Allan said the issue lies in a legal grey area and that in some instances the platform or the publication should be accountable but in the majority of cases, responsibility should lie with the individual. “The primary responsibility should lie with the person who wrote and published the comment,” he said.

Business Insider Australia has reached out to Facebook for further comment.

The question around responsibility over defamatory comments follows a case in Australia where media companies, including Nine Entertainment and News Corp, are being sued by Dylan Voller, a former detainee at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory.

Voller was one victim at the centre of the 2016 exposé of shocking treatment of youth in Australia’s child detention facilities.

In July 2016, an ABC Four Corners report exposed the disturbing practices taking place in Australian detention and youth centres, which included Voller being strapped down in a restraint chair with a spit hood over his head, physical abuse of children, the prolonged solitary confinement of children and the use of tear gas.

Following the reports, multiple media organisations published stories about Voller’s life and posted them to Facebook pages. In the comments on these posts, members of the public claimed Voller had attacked a Salvation Army offer, raped an elderly woman and conducted a carjacking. Voller claims the posts made false and defamatory accusations about him.

In the landmark ruling on June 24, New South Wales Supreme Court Judge Stephen Rothman said media companies could be considered publishers of the comments on their Facebook page and therefore liable for defamatory comments their readers post under a story.

“It is not the compiling of a comment that gives rise to damages in defamation; it is its publication,” Rothman said, according to the court documents.

Rothman said that media organisations “had the means effectively to delay the publication of the third-party comments and to monitor whether any were defamatory, before releasing them to the general readership.”

Media companies cannot prevent comments from being posted on Facebook, though they can hide comments after the fact and set up a keyword or profanity filter. It is unclear what method Rothman is referring to.

Both News Corp and Nine Entertainment released statements via email to Business Insider Australia stating they are considering appealing the case.

“This ruling shows how far out of step Australia’s defamation laws are with other English-speaking democracies and highlights the urgent need for change,” News Corp said in the statement.

“It defies belief that media organisations are held responsible for comments made by other people on social media pages. It is ridiculous that the media company is held responsible while facebook which gives us no ability to turn off comments on its platform bears no responsibility at all.”

Social media platforms are currently in the spotlight in Australia, with the competition regulator ACCC expected to hand down its report on Sunday following an investigation into the market power of platforms such as Google and Facebook in the local market. The regulator is concerned with the platform’s impact on journalism and ad revenue, the existence of filter bubbles, the collection of data and the risk to Australian businesses.

“The ACCC considers that the strong market position of digital platforms like Google and Facebook justifies a greater level of regulatory oversight,” ACCC’s chair Rod Sims said in the regulator’s preliminary report in December.

“Australian law does not prohibit a business from possessing significant market power or using its efficiencies or skills to ‘out compete’ its rivals. But when their dominant position is at risk of creating competitive or consumer harm, governments should stay ahead of the game and act to protect consumers and businesses through regulation.”

Disclosure: Nine Entertainment is the parent company of Pedestrian Group, which owns Business Insider Australia.

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