Australia to require social media to ‘unmask trolls’ • The Register

The Australian government has announced that it will force social media companies to disclose the identities of users who post material deemed defamatory.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison coined the planned legislation as creating an authority to “expose anonymous online trolls”.

The effect of the planned law would be to put social networks in the same legal position as publishers – responsible for any material you upload if it was defamatory, even if it was written by a third party. More on that later.

The Prime Minister’s press release states, “Anonymous trolls are under notification, you will be named and held accountable for what you say. Big tech companies are notified, remove their anonymity shield or be held accountable for what they post.” This document goes on to show that if social media companies disclose the identity of users who have made allegedly defamatory comments, whoever posted the disputed material could become the subject of a defamation lawsuit rather than the companies.

It has not been made clear how social media companies will make users identify, and a bill that would shed light on how the law will work has not been published – but a “presentation draft” of the law has been pledged “next week” to the consultation process.

In weekend interviews, ministers offered no explanation as to whether the bill would force social media operators to collect or verify contact data. Whether the law would apply to existing social media accounts was also left unexplained, as well as how social media companies might be dealt with if users provided false contact information or let contact details lapse over time.

Social media companies, at the time of writing, have been silent on the matter. Supposedly they are waiting for fellow US residents to come out of their food coma after Thanksgiving.

Accompanying the anti-phishing plan was a pledge to legislate so that Australian publishers would no longer be liable for defamatory comments made on their social media presence. In August 2021, the Australian High Court found publishers liable for defamatory comments posted in response to story links posted on Facebook. Prosecutor Michaelia Cash argued that the ruling leaves any Australian organization at the mercy of trolls who, by posting defamatory content to the organization’s presence on social media, could distort their target but leave the organization responsible for their comments.

The combination of this move and proposed social media phishing detection legislation creates an apparent conflict. If social media companies are treated as publishers, but publishers are immune to the consequences of phishing posts, what is the net effect?

The Australian government has embraced big tech and won twice. The first win came after she quickly organized an international response to a live broadcast of a mass murder perpetrated by a racist attacker in New Zealand. In the face of overwhelming evidence that they had allowed a completely hateful act to be broadcast and then widely shared, social media operators quickly agreed to improve content filtering.

Another win came with a law requiring Facebook and Google to pay local news publishers for the right to link to their content (the Indonesian government last week introduced Australia-based laws). Facebook and Google protested, loudly, that the proposal was impractical before they finally supported it.

record Expect a similar response this time around, as social networks defend users’ rights to anonymity, and perhaps mention that China is currently the only country that requires the use of real names for all online accounts (along with some South Korean websites).

Australia’s federal parliament is stepping up for summer recess this week, and the dates for the 2022 parliament sessions have yet to be set. So it is not likely that the draft offer will be ready for a vote for several months. ®

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