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Facebook, Google prepare for defamation inquiry showdown against news outlets

Both major parties ruled out including defamation laws in the press freedom review because they feared it would complicate a focus on ways to better balance national security and public interest journalism.

A standalone defamation inquiry – agreed to by every state and territory government in January – aims to overhaul the country’s laws by mid-2020.

Tech giant lobby group Digi – which represents some of the country’s largest social media companies – has lodged a submission with that inquiry arguing any changes to the law should recognise how little control companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter say they have over what users post.

Digi fears legal changes will ignore “the sheer volume of material processed on such platforms, which in the context of search engines, involves more than a billion searches a day”.

“The current position is that, if [companies like Facebook and Google] have the technical ability to control and supervise, they face significant risk if they do not do so,” Digi wrote in the submission.

“This is despite the position being, as a matter of practice, onerous bearing on unmanageable.”

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Facebook, Google and Twitter are wary that any changes to defamation laws could reclassify them as content publishers alongside traditional media outlets, rather than the distributors they are by-and-large viewed as.

They also want to make their defamation responsibilities after-the-fact, meaning they would need to only take down defamatory comments and posts once a court has found them to be so.

Australia’s Right to Know, which represents the ABC, News Corp, Nine and SBS, has told the inquiry new laws should draw a line between news content made by a media organisation and comments by users beneath that content.

The submissions were drafted before a landmark court ruling last week found media organisations were responsible for ensuring Facebook comments beneath story posts were not defamatory.

It is expected the decision will be appealed.

Nine chief executive Hugh Marks said companies like Facebook should take more responsibility for comments on their sites.

“What happened the other day was a court case where media organisations were found potentially liable for comments made by third parties, on a platform that we have no control over,” he said.

“Generally that’s an area where [companies such as Facebook] need to take some responsibility – to ensure that media companies can properly access those platforms in a way that’s safe that doesn’t expose us to additional liability.”

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Media bosses emerged from their meeting with the Attorney-General on Wednesday to say their¬†top priority was ensuring journalists subject to last month’s press raids would not be prosecuted.

“Something that really needs to be cleared up straight away are the News Corp journalist and the ABC journalists currently facing prosecution,” Mr Marks said.

“We’ve got a commitment from the government that they’ll work constructively with us on ensuring that the broader environment is created in a way that’s good for modern journalism.”

The standalone defamation inquiry is due to report in September.

Nine is the publisher of this masthead.

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