CNN has exiled Australians from its Facebook pages there—the latest chapter in Australia making itself the crash-test dummy of sweeping social-media regulation.
As Reuters reports, the AT&T-owned (for now) news network blocked Aussies from even viewing its Facebook presences after Australia’s High Court made publishers liable for comments posted by readers on their public comments sections.
In that Sept. 8 ruling, the High Court ruled on a complaint from a man whose stay in juvenile detention had led to hostile comments on Facebook pages run by Australian newspapers. The judges upheld a lower-court ruling, writing that “the acts of the appellants in facilitating, encouraging, and thereby assisting the posting of comments by the third-party Facebook users rendered them publishers of those comments.”
CNN complained that Facebook did not let it shut down comments altogether on its pages; the Reuters story quotes an unnamed Facebook spokesperson as saying the company had provided CNN with its latest help in managing comments.
In holding publishers liable for the speech of readers on their site, the Lucky Country has departed radically from the principles set out in the US by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That 1996 law holds that, criminal conduct aside, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Translation: liability for legally offensive content on a social forum falls on the the person who posted it, not the site that hosted it.
Many politicians now denounce “CDA 230,” although for different reasons based on party: Democrats often say it leaves social platforms facing no consequences for leaving up misinformation and hate speech, while Republicans say its waiver of liability for platforms that moderate “otherwise offensive” speech suppresses right-wing voices. (Never mind how well many prominent right-wing commentators do on Facebook.)
Meanwhile, the First Amendment continues to protect the underlying right of private companies to choose what to publish.
CNN cutting off its Australian audience from its social-media presence represents the second time Aussies have found themselves geofenced out. In February, the government passed a law, the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code, compelling social platforms and search sites to negotiate compensation for government-recognized news publishers. In response, Facebook blocked Australians from sharing news links and also blocked Australian publishers’ Facebook pages from being viewed anywhere in the world—essentially putting an entire continent in the news equivalent of a penal colony.
Days later, Facebook reversed those blocks and said it would make Australian publishers eligible for payment via its Facebook News feature highlighting content from selected publishers. Now, those publishers may have second thoughts about participating if that will expose them to lawsuits from aggrieved subjects of comments.