A common question asked of our team members is: ‘if a defamatory comment is posted on our social media page, would we be liable?’ To answer this question, we have provided a brief overview of the law as it currently stands.
The nature of social networking sites lends itself to the inherent risk of a consumer posting a defamatory comment on the site, being a comment that could:
- injure the reputation of a person by exposing them to hatred, contempt or ridicule;
- cause others to shun or avoid a person; or
- lower a person in the estimation of others.
Liability attaches at time of publication (and re-publication) of a defamatory comment, including on a brand’s own site, Facebook or Twitter page. But who is liable for the defamatory publication?
The author, being the consumer who posted the defamatory comment, will usually be liable. But the defamed person will often not pursue the author, due to the difficulty that online anonymity/pseudonymity may pose in identifying the author or the simple fact that the author’s pockets are typically not as deep as those of the brand.
It is unlikely that a social networking host or provider, which provides the platform itself (i.e. Facebook, Twitter etc.), will be regarded as publishing, or even as authorising the publication, of the defamatory material, given its role as platform host/provider is a passive one. In the recent English decision of Payam Tamiz v Google Inc, Google UK Limited  EWHC 449 (QB), Justice Eady agreed with Google’s argument that it merely provided access to the communications system Blogger.com and did not create, select, solicit, vet or approve the content on the system – this is all controlled by the blog owner. Justice Eady summarised:
“… it may perhaps be said that the position is, according to Google Inc, rather as though it owned a wall on which various people had chosen to inscribe graffiti. It does not regard itself as being more responsible for the content of these graffiti than would the owner of such a wall.”
Even if the social network host or provider is deemed to be a publisher, it may be afforded protection in Australia as an ‘internet content host’ (ICH) or ‘internet service provider’ (ISP) under section 91 of Schedule 5 of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (Cth), although this has not yet been determined with respect to defamation in Australia (see our blog ‘Twitter sued for Defamation’ on this point). Section 91(1) of this Act states that any law of a State or Territory, or rule of common law or equity, has no effect to the extent to which it subjects an ICH/ISP to liability for hosting or carrying particular internet content of which it was not aware or requires an ICH/ISP to monitor, make inquiries about, or keep records or, internet content that it hosts or carries.
The question however remains whether a brand operating a social networking site will be deemed to be the publisher of defamatory comments of users of their site and accordingly liable. The law in Australia is largely untested. Liability will likely depend upon the extent of control exercisable by the brand over what is published on their site as well as the brand’s knowledge of the defamatory material on their site.
In terms of control, Facebook, for instance, affords significant control to the page owner, including control over who can post, control over who can view the posts, and the power to delete posts. However, just because a brand may have the technical capability to take down defamatory comments on their site does not automatically deem them to be a publisher.
The brand’s knowledge of the defamatory material must also be considered. Does the brand authorise the publication of the defamatory matter or merely facilitate it? If the brand is found to be a publisher, the answer to this question will determine whether the brand may avail themselves to the defence of innocent dissemination, which applies “to those who participate in the communication of defamatory matter but do not authorise that communication” (Thompson v Australian Capital Television Pty Ltd (1996) 186 CLR 574 per Gaudron J).
But when may a brand be found to ‘authorise’ the defamatory matter – at time of posting, when the brand becomes aware of the defamatory comment, or never? This issue has been considered for the purpose of contempt, where it was held that the publisher “accepted responsibility for the publications when it knew of the publications and decided not to remove them” (ACCC v Allergy Pathway Pty Ltd and Anor (No 2)  FCA 74 per Finkelstein J).
Therefore, if your brand exercises sufficient control to be able to take down defamatory material from its social networking site, and fails to do so within a reasonable time of notification of the existence of the defamatory material, it may be held responsible for the continued publication of the defamatory material. It is however uncertain whether your brand can merely rely upon users of its site to notify them of the defamatory material, or whether it must actively monitor content on its site. As a risk management strategy, we recommend moderating content on your brand’s site on a frequent basis and taking down any defamatory content as soon as reasonably practicable, so that your brand is not the one that ends up resolving this question before the courts.