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CNN denies Australians access to its Facebook pages, cites defamation risk

The move makes CNN the first major news organisation to pull its Facebook presence in Australia since the country's High Court ruled this month that publishers were legally responsible for comments posted below stories.

By: Reuters | Sydney |
September 29, 2021 1:20:10 pm
CNN's main Facebook page shows an error message when accessed from Australia, as seen in this screen capture taken Sept. 29, 2021. (Reuters)

CNN said it is preventing Australians from accessing its Facebook Inc pages after a court ruled that publishers can be liable for defamation in public comment sections and the social media firm refused to help it disable comments in the country.

The move makes CNN, which is owned by AT&T Inc, the first major news organisation to pull its Facebook presence in Australia since the country’s High Court ruled this month that publishers were legally responsible for comments posted below stories — even if the stories themselves were not defamatory.

CNN does not feature prominently in Australian media consumption, but the decision could have reverberations across the industry if other outlets follow suit. A host of global mastheads have boosted their Australian operations in recent years after identifying the country as a growth market.

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“This is the first domino to fall,” said Michael Bradley, managing partner of Marque Lawyers, which works on defamation cases. “Others will follow for sure … mainly media entities who feel they can happily live without the Australian Facebook audience.”

CNN said that Facebook declined a request to help it and other publishers disable public comments in the country following the ruling, which was made during the course of an ongoing defamation lawsuit.

CNN’s main Facebook page showed an error message when accessed from Australia on Wednesday.

“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 in a statement.

A Facebook spokesperson said recent court decisions had shown the need for reform in Australian defamation law and the company looked forward to “greater clarity and certainty in this area”.

“While it’s not our place to provide legal guidance to CNN, we have provided them with the latest information on tools we make available to help publishers manage comments,” the spokesperson said.

Facebook says it has several features available for publishers and other users to restrict who can comment on posts. It and CNN did not give details of the discussions that led to CNN’s decision.

Social media is a central channel for distributing content in Australia, with about two-thirds of the country’s 25 million population on Facebook, according to industry figures. About a third of the country’s population used Facebook to source news in 2021, a University of Canberra report said.

But that has coincided with an explosion in defamation lawsuits, prompting reviews by several state and federal governments to determine if existing laws are appropriate for the internet age.

“The fact that a foreign outlet like CNN are pulling out shows the degree of concern that Australia’s laws have not kept up with the pace of technological change,” said Matt Collins, a prominent defamation lawyer.

CNN would have no equivalent exposure in the United States and relatively little exposure in Britain or other English-speaking countries like New Zealand, he added. “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.”

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