EDITORIAL: Tech giants have legal and moral obligations to fulfil

Editorial
The Nightly
Global tech giants must be held accountable for the content they are profiting from.
Global tech giants must be held accountable for the content they are profiting from. Credit: NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Australia has long had in place laws that set out the responsibilities of publishers.

One cannot publish material that is indecent or offensive. That means that publishers can be held criminally responsible if they disseminate information that depicts undue violence or cruelty, that provides instructions in crime, or that shows abhorrent things.

There are clear and robust exemptions for material of artistic merit, and that which is necessary to disseminate legal, medical, or scientific knowledge.

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It’s a system that for the most part, works well.

The provisions in our criminal codes dealing with such material are rarely used, because responsible publishers take seriously their obligations. Not only their legal obligations but the moral obligation they have to their audiences.

No responsible publisher wants to put out into the world material that is indecent, hurtful or dangerous.

Social media platforms are not responsible publishers.

The bosses of tech giants have proven again and again through their inaction that they don’t care how vile the material posted on their platforms is. Not their fault and not their problem, is their attitude.

That’s despite the fact these platforms host vast amounts of material so vile, so obscene, to be beyond the comprehension of any decent person.

We’re talking about the abuse and sexual exploitation of children.

Racist and misogynistic hate speech.

Channels which enable scammers to extort innocent victims around the world. In many tragic cases, these victims are hounded to their deaths.

And, in a high profile recent example, the vision of the near-fatal stabbing of a Sydney bishop mid-sermon.

Australia’s e-Safety Commissioner has told X, formerly Twitter, that it must take down the footage. But X owner Elon Musk, in his typically bombastic and arrogant style, has refused. He claims to be a defender of free speech.

But Australians see him for what he is — an egocentric bully who believes the rules shouldn’t apply to him.

If any Australian organisation published material such as this, they could rightly expect to face significant criminal penalties.

But not only are social media platforms not responsible, in some instances, they’re not considered to be publishers and aren’t held to the same robust standards.

That’s been made clear in the world of defamation law. If defamatory material is posted by a third party on the social media page of an organisation — even without that organisation’s knowledge — that organisation can be on the hook for the legal consequences.

The social media platform, however, has no such legal responsibilities.

It’s an absurd situation.

Our laws need to deal with these social media platforms as what they are — publishers.

That comes with some hefty responsibilities both legal and moral.

These organisations must start living up to them.

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