The country’s highest court ruled this week that media companies in Australia are liable for the comments that Facebook users post under their articles. The decision could have far-reaching implications for how Australian publishers engage with their customers on social media.
Three major news organizations argued that they could not be held liable for comments made on their Facebook (FB) news pages, but the High Court of Australia dismissed their argument on Wednesday. A lower court ruling had been appealed by the news organizations.
“The appellants’ attempt to portray themselves as passive and unwitting victims of Facebook’s functionality has an air of unreality,” the court wrote. “Having taken action to secure the commercial benefit of the Facebook functionality, the appellants bear the legal consequences.”
The High Court wrote that the appeals court “was correct in holding that the appellants’ acts in facilitating, encouraging, and thus assisting the posting of comments by third-party Facebook users rendered them publishers of those comments.”
In response to a lawsuit filed by Dylan Voller, a former detainee in the Australian youth detention system, Fairfax Media Publications, Nationwide News, and Australian News Channel filed their case. Voller’s treatment at a detention center became the subject of a 2016 abuse scandal, and he later sued the three media companies over public comments on their Facebook pages accusing him of heinous crimes, which his attorney claims he did not commit.
“It is commonly known that media companies encourage increased engagement on their posts so that their content is seen by a larger audience. This helps in attracting advertising revenue,” Voller’s lawyers, O’Brien Criminal & Civil Solicitors, said in a statement. “With this strong commercial imperative driving them there was no doubt that the media companies lent their assistance to the publication of third-party comments. They did everything they could to encourage the same and it is disingenuous of them to say they played no role in publication of the same.”
The High Court’s decision on Wednesday does not resolve Voller’s underlying defamation case against the publishers, which will now be heard by the New South Wales Supreme Court.
However, it alters the media landscape in Australia. Nine Entertainment, which owns Fairfax and is one of the country’s largest media companies, said Thursday that it was “disappointed” with the decision’s outcome.
“It will have ramifications for what we can post on social media in the future,” a Nine Entertainment spokesperson told CNN Business.
A representative for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Australia, which owns Nationwide News and Australian News Channel, did not respond to a CNN Business request for comment.