Attorneys-general considering new national social media laws

State and territory attorneys-general met with Federal Attorney-General Nicola Roxon in Brisbane today to consider the possibility of new national laws to regulate social media.

As reported here, the issue has come under scrutiny again following the murder of Jill Meagher in Melbourne, and subsequent pleas by Victoria Police for Facebook to remove content regarding the accused man, which could jeopardise the man’s right to a fair trial. The pages were reportedly removed after days of repeated requests from Victorian authorities.

Since the first media report of the incident, Victoria Police has posted four statements on its Facebook page, reminding its followers that it is inappropriate to post speculation or comments about matters before the courts, and that any pages or posts that appear to be in breach of Victorian contempt laws will be reported to the E-Crime Squad for investigation.

Last month, police and authorities also crossed paths with social network Twitter, after much-publicised online attacks on Australia’s Next Top Model judge Charlotte Dawson, and rugby league footballer and Wests Tigers captain, Robbie Farah.

Before the Standing Council of Law and Justice meeting this morning, NSW

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Attorney-General Greg Smith said:

We’d like to see Facebook take responsibility for what’s published in Australia and other countries by registering an office here so that orders of courts and processes can be served on them…We have to find a solution that makes these social media groups responsible for what happens in this country too and particularly if it interferes with our judicial process, trials and if it’s used for bullying people… They’ve got to take responsibility for taking down that material.

Interestingly, there is a Facebook page for Facebook’s Sydney office, which it claims was founded in 2008 and posted as recently as yesterday, although perhaps there was some issue around the authority of Facebook’s Australian staff to address these sorts of issues.

Jarrod Bleijie, Queenland’s Attorney-General, noted that modern technology was a difficult law reform area as it “changes by the minute”, and there may be unintended consequences. He also indicated that in introducing any laws, Parliament would need to be careful not to limit freedom of speech.

Technology-specific regulations will be superseded as new technologies proliferate. Existing laws, including in relation to racial vilification, defamation, harassment, contempt, and consumer protection apply in the online sphere, however, the application of these laws in cyberspace has been little-tested in the courts, and may not transfer well to social media.

The Standing Council on Law and Justice will set up a working group with representative of mainstream and social media, judicial officers and law enforcement officials, and will make recommendations on:

  • Model guidelines and warnings for users about prejudicial material;
  • Protocols with social media organisations for the removal of prejudicial material;
  • Procedures for law enforcement and courts to use social media to issue orders against users of social media and issue warnings to them;
  • Model jury directions on this issue which might be adopted by all states and territories;
  • Laws dealing with offences by jurors; and
  • The need for further research on the impact of social media on the actions of jurors.

A press release from NSW Attorney-General, Greg Smith, is available online here.

With Facebook announcing yesterday that it had reached 1 billion users worldwide, no doubt these unforeseen issues are going to keep intensifying. These are very interesting times, with legal complications that have not been encountered before. Watch this space.