Man takes on Twitter over 'hate blog'

Legal action against Twitter in Australia may result in a change in the country's defamation law.

Story highlights

  • Australian man files defamation notice against Twitter
  • Tweet accused him of writing an offensive blog
  • Case will test bounds of Australian defamation law
  • May have implications for social media sites in Australia

An Australian man is taking legal against social media giant Twitter after being erroneously accused in a tweet of writing a so-called hate blog.

Lawyers representing Joshua Meggitt filed the defamation notice against Twitter Thursday, seeking damages and the removal of the offending tweets and re-tweets.

Observers say the case could force social media sites to reconsider their future in Australia, or prompt legislators to change the country's defamation laws.

The original tweet was posted last November by Australian writer and broadcaster Marieke Hardy. It contained a link to Hardy's blog which accused Meggitt of writing an offensive blog about her. The blog contained a series of personal attacks against Hardy which she reportedly described as "ranting" and "hateful."

The link was re-tweeted a number of times by some of Hardy's followers, of which there are now more than 61,000.

Meggitt's lawyer, Stuart Gibson, described his client as "a music journalist and family man" whose main priority was having the tweets removed.

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He says it made no difference that Hardy linked to a blog which made the accusation, rather than explicitly naming Meggitt on her Twitter feed.

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"This is a modern day equivalent of standing in front of a billboard and pointing to a defamatory remark," Gibson told CNN.

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Gibson said the two parties had reached an agreement, but declined to confirm press reports that Hardy had paid Meggitt $16,000 (A$15,000) to settle the matter.

Should Meggitt win a defamation suit against Twitter, the payout could be much higher.

Defamation law in the Australian state of Victoria caps damages at $335,000 (A$311,000), although Gibson declined to comment on whether his client would be seeking the maximum amount.

Gibson said his client had not signed up to Twitter, and so had not agreed to its Terms of Service. They state that "under no circumstances will Twitter be liable in any way for any Content, including, but not limited to, any errors or omissions in any Content, or any loss or damage of any kind incurred as a result of the use of any Content posted, emailed, transmitted or otherwise made available via the Services or broadcast elsewhere."

"What it means is that if you use Twitter and anything defamatory is posted on it then you agree that Twitter is not liable," Gibson said. "It's explicitly set out in their terms and conditions. And if you're not a user, then you're not bound."

Peter Black, a senior lecturer at the faculty of law at the Queensland University of Technology, said Meggitt had a reasonable chance of winning his case against the social media company.

"I do think they have a reasonable chance of success. The content itself was clearly defamatory," he said, adding that it was the first time someone had tested the scope of Australian defamation law by taking on a social media company.

"I think that it's fair to say we don't have the same protection given to intermediaries in this country that perhaps you see in the United States," Black said.

"It is arguable, if not likely, that the limited defenses that we do have don't extend to those platforms, which would lead to the situation where you do have a site like Twitter or Facebook responsible legally for defamatory comments that their users may post."

Black said if Twitter was found to be responsible for defamatory material published on its website, it could force social media sites to reconsider their future in the country.

"The amount of content that is generated through these sites means that it's not practically possible for them to monitor, filter, screen every tweet, every post, every video that gets uploaded onto YouTube," Black said.

"It could mean pulling out, it could mean introducing some filtering mechanism," he said, adding that the more likely outcome, should the case succeed, is a change in Australian law to give social media sites greater protection against defamation claims.

"So you either extend the existing immunity that would apply to things like internet service providers to also cover these platforms, or you put in a different framework that would give them immunity as long as they agree to take down comments once they had notice," Black said.

When contacted by CNN, Twitter refused to comment.

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