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  • CNN blocks Australians from accessing its Facebook pages after a court ruled that publishers are legally responsible for comments posted below articles
  • Defamation lawyers have noted the contrast to the US and Britain, where laws largely protect publishers
  • CNN also said Facebook had declined a request to help it and other publishers disable public comments in Australia
  • Around two-thirds of Australia’s 25 million people are on Facebook, and around one-third of Australians said they use the platform to source news

CNN has blocked Australians from accessing its Facebook pages after a court ruled earlier this month that publishers are legally responsible for comments posted below articles — even if the articles were not defamatory themselves.

The ruling has come under fire from defamation lawyers who accused Australia of failing to keep up with technological change, noting the contrast with the United States and Britain where laws largely protect publishers from any fallout from comments posted online.

Australia is currently reviewing its defamation laws. In the meantime, however, other global news organisations — particularly those that feel they can live without Facebook’s Australian audience — are likely to follow CNN’s lead, the lawyers said.

“This is the first domino to fall,” managing partner at Marque Lawyers in Sydney, Michael Bradley said.

For Australian publishers, the ruling also adds a layer of complexity to their own relationship with Facebook, just as many of them have started to benefit from a new law that forces the company to pay for links to their content.

Commenting on its decision, CNN said Facebook had declined a request to help it and other publishers disable public comments in the country.

“We are disappointed that Facebook, once again, has failed to ensure its platform is a place for credible journalism and productive dialogue around current events among its users,” a CNN spokeswoman said.

Around two-thirds of Australia’s 25 million people are on Facebook, and around one-third of Australians said they used the platform to source news, according to a survey by the University of Canberra at the start of this year.

But there has also been a surge in defamation lawsuits, and state and federal chief lawyers are conducting a sweeping review into whether existing rules are suitable for the internet age.

In a submission to that review in May, an industry group representing Facebook and other internet platforms said liability for defamation should remain with content “originators” since they could more easily monitor and delete offending content.

Mark Speakman, the Attorney-General for New South Wales who is working on the review, said resolving the question of liability in online forums was a priority.

“Getting the balance right on any reform is crucial to balancing freedom of expression with the right of a person to protect their reputation,” he said.

Prominent defamation lawyer Matt Collins added that CNN’s decision highlighted the importance of aligning Australian law with that of the USand Britain.

“Australia is among western democracies an outlier in relation to the circumstances in which media organisations and any user of social media can be liable for content they didn’t they themselves write or approve of,” he said.

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