I’m not familiar with the fine points of Australian libel law. But a decision this week by the High Court of Australia that publishers are liable for third-party comments posted on their Facebook pages demonstrates the power of Section 230 in the United States.
Section 230, part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, does two things. First, it carves out an exception to the principle that publishers are legally responsible for all content, including advertisements and letters to the editor. By contrast, publishers are not liable for online comments in any way.
Second, in what is sometimes called the “Good Samaritan” provision, publishers may remove some third-party content without taking on liability for other content. For example, a lawyer might argue that a news organization that removed a libelous comment has taken on an editing role and could therefore be sued for other libelous comments that weren’t removed. Under Section 230, you can’t do that.
The Australian court’s ruling strikes me as a straightforward application of libel law in the absence of Section 230. Mike Cherney of The Wall Street Journal puts it this way:
The High Court of Australia determined that media companies, by creating a public Facebook page and posting content on that page, facilitated and encouraged comments from other users on those posts. That means the media companies should be considered publishers of the comments and are therefore responsible for any defamatory content that appears in them, according to a summary of the judgment from the court.
Over at the Nieman Journalism Lab, Joshua Benton has a markedly different take, arguing that the court is holding publishers responsible for content they did not publish. Benton writes:
Pandora’s box isn’t big enough to hold all the potential implications of that idea. That a news publisher should be held accountable for the journalism it publishes is obvious. That it should be held accountable for reader comments left on its own website (which it fully controls) is, at a minimum, debatable.
But that it should be held legally liable for the comments of every rando who visits its Facebook page — in other words, the speech of people it doesn’t control, on a platform it doesn’t control — is a big, big step.
I disagree. As I said, publishers are traditionally liable for every piece of content that appears under their name. Section 230 was a deviation from that tradition — a special carve-out providing publishers with immunity they wouldn’t otherwise have. If Benton is right, then we never needed 230. But of course we did. There’s a reason that the Electronic Frontier Foundation calls 230 “the most important law protecting internet speech.”
I also don’t see much difference between comments posted on a publisher’s website or on its Facebook page. A Facebook page is something you set up, add content to and manage. It’s not yours in the same way as your website, but it is part of your brand and under your control. If you should be liable for third-party content on your website, then it’s hardly a stretch to say that you should also be liable for third-party content on your Facebook page.
As the role of social media in our political discourse has become increasingly fraught, there have been a number of calls to abolish or reform 230. Abolition would mean the end of Facebook — and, for that matter, the comments sections on websites. (There are days when I’m tempted…) Personally, I’d look into abolishing 230 protections for sites that use algorithms to drive engagement and, thus, divisiveness. Such a change would make Facebook less profitable, but I think we could live with that.
Australia, meanwhile, has a dilemma on its hands. Maybe Parliament will pass a law equivalent to Section 230, but (I hope) with less sweeping protections. In any case, Australia should serve as an interesting test case to see what happens when toxic, often libelous third-party comments no longer get a free pass.