In a landmark decision that sets a strong precedent worldwide, the High Court of Australia ruled that media outlets are legally responsible for comments posted by readers on their social media pages.

The decision was made after dismissing an appeal by Australia’s major media outlets. The outlets attempted to remove liability for comments posted by third parties on their social media pages such as Facebook and Twitter, AP News reported.

The media tried to convince the court that they should only be held liable if they were aware of the posts in question and if there was proven intent to disseminate posted messages that turned out to be outside the framework of the law. 

But the judges rejected that argument and ruled that the media are liable for the comments simply for facilitating and encouraging online discussions.

The case on which the Supreme Court ruled stems from the trial of Dylan Voller, a former juvenile detention center inmate, who sued the publishers of media outlets The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, and Sky News Australia over comments posted by individuals on their Facebook pages in 2016 and 2017.

The media outlets at the time posted content on their pages about news stories that referred to Voller’s life in a juvenile detention center. Facebook users responded by posting comments that Voller claimed were defamatory and offensive.

The case was initially heard in 2019 by the New South Wales Supreme Court, which ruled in Voller’s favor. In 2020, the New South Wales Court of Appeal again ruled in Voller’s favor, concluding that media outlets function on social networks as “publishers.”

The media companies appealed once again to the High Court of Australia, the country’s final appellate body, which also ruled in Voller’s favor with a five-to-two majority.

The High Court downplayed the fact that the Facebook commenting feature could not be disabled at the time. 

“Appellants’ attempt to portray themselves as passive, unwitting victims of Facebook’s functionality has an air of unreality about it,” said Justices Stephen Gageler and Michelle Gordon in the recent ruling.

According to the judges, companies derive a commercial benefit from their participation in social networks, which makes them bear the legal consequences of what happens there.

One of the two dissenting judges, Simon Steward, argued that a more precise definition of what is considered a “publisher” needed to be applied, adding that it should be established whether they “procured, provoked or carried out” the comments. 

Steward’s comments aim to warn that without establishing greater detail of who is considered a “publisher,” anyone could be held liable for posts written by third parties on their social media pages, which would make the situation much more complex. 

Voller’s lawyers welcomed the ruling saying, “This decision put responsibility where it should be; on media companies with huge resources, to monitor public comments in circumstances where they know there is a strong likelihood of an individual being defamed.”

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