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This Is Why We Need Section 230

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Photo: Ric Feld (AP)

CNN shut down its Facebook page in Australia on Wednesday, after an Australian court ruled that media outlets are liable for defamatory user-generated comments. On the one hand: bye, Felicia. On the other, the ruling threatens to squash the lively social media discourse we all know and love. It could also stifle grassroots organizing and resources for vulnerable communities—the things internet free speech advocates warn about every time lawmakers threaten to dismantle protections for platforms.

The deteriorating effects of the court’s ruling on online speech in Australia serve as a warning of what’s to come if U.S. lawmakers succeed in their efforts to weakening protections against such legal decisions in the United States.

Earlier this month, Australia’s High Court rejected an appeal by Australian news outlets that were sued by former detainee Dylan Voller. He was famously shown, as a teen, strapped to a chair and hooded, which led to him being mocked in Facebook comments sections. The court implied that its ruling could apply to virtually anyone running a public Facebook page, finding that “any act of participation in the communication of defamatory matter to a third party is sufficient to make a defendant a publisher.” They can even be held liable for comments they’re unaware of and comments they delete.

“Following the Australian high court’s ruling, we approached Facebook and asked them if they would support CNN and other publishers by disabling the comment functionality on their platform in Australia,” a CNN spokesperson said in an email. “They chose not to do so. As a result, CNN will no longer publish content to Facebook in Australia. 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. CNN will, of course, continue to publish content on our own platforms in Australia and to deliver quality journalism to our audiences around the world.”

Facebook did not yet respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.

Earlier this year, Facebook briefly unilaterally blocked Australians from accessing news outlets’ pages after another #DeleteFacebook campaign and blowback from Australian lawmakers and Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

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CNN is the first to leave Facebook in Australia, but other media outlets are exercising caution. The Guardian Australia has disabled comments. Australia’s News Corp has turned them off for “some articles” that “are subject to legal constraints.”

The court’s ruling previews the grim future in store if U.S. politicians get their way and dismantle Section 230, the keystone U.S. law that shields websites from liability over user-generated content. Without it, social media platforms and any other website with user-generated content—especially those without Facebook’s deep pockets—would likely die. Both ill-informed Republicans and misguided Democrats, President Joe Biden included, would like it dismantled.