Modernisation of Australia’s defamation laws has reached another milestone with the release of a discussion paper about the liability of digital platforms for defamatory material.
Attorney General Mark Speakman said the second stage of the NSW-led review of national defamation laws will examine the extent to which platforms such as search engines and social media sites should be liable for reputation-damaging material published online.
“When the uniform defamation laws were drafted more than 15 years ago, social media was in its infancy and trolls were confined to children’s books. This review acknowledges times have changed and asks whether internet giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter should be responsible for content posted by platform users,” Mr Speakman said.
In July 2020, the Council of Attorneys-General agreed to a suite of ‘stage one’ reforms to modernise national defamation laws and also agreed that a second stage focused on online defamation should be progressed.
“Australia needs contemporary laws that protect reputations in an era when anyone can publish almost anything to the world at large with just the click of a button.”
“However, getting the balance right is crucial to avoid online commentary being blocked unnecessarily. We must not silence free speech which is essential to a proper, functioning democracy, or inhibit the functions of digital platforms unduly.”
The discussion paper also asks whether defamation law discourages reporting alleged crimes and unlawful conduct to police, disciplinary bodies and employers. Work on this issue will be led by Victoria.
“There is a strong public interest in ensuring victims and witnesses of crime and other unacceptable behaviour are not discouraged from reporting incidents for fear of being sued for defamation. However, robust safeguards are needed to prevent people making false or malicious reports,” Mr Speakman said.
NSW last year became the first state or territory to pass far-reaching, nationally agreed defamation reforms designed to unclog courts from trivial claims and support public interest journalism.
NSW, South Australia, Victoria and all other jurisdictions able to do so will commence the reforms on 1 July 2001, with remaining jurisdictions following as soon as possible thereafter.