The year 2019 has seen the largest suite of law reform processes in Australian media law history, as regulators grapple with the implications of globalisation and convergence of the media and entertainment industries.

The most significant of these is the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) Digital Platforms Review, which resulted in the Digital Platforms Review Final Report, published on 26 July 2019 (the ACCC Report). The ACCC Report recommends significant changes to Australia’s privacy laws and an inquiry in relation to the supply of advertising technology services and advertising agencies, codes of conduct to deal with disinformation and to govern the relationship between digital platforms and media organisations, and a variety of competition law, copyright, anti-disinformation, tax and educational measures.

There are also significant reviews and inquiries underway in relation to Australian defamation laws, court reporting and press freedoms.

Each of the reviews is considering, or has considered, Australia’s existing media, communications or security laws. At the moment, in addition to defamation, copyright and other platform-neutral laws, Australia’s media laws include platform-specific laws, with television and radio broadcasters regulated more extensively than other platforms.

Police raids on journalists and a trial relating to security laws (which is being held in closed court) have also caused the public and media to focus on Australia’s whistle-blowing and official secrecy laws. These are the focus of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on intelligence and security.2 In addition, the Environment and Communications References Committee is considering the adequacy of Commonwealth laws and frameworks covering disclosure, and reporting of sensitive and classified information.3


i Defamation laws

Australia’s defamation laws, like those of the UK and the US, are largely based on common law principles originally developed in England.

They do not include the serious harm requirement introduced in the UK in 2013,4 nor do they contain the US public figure defence.5

In 2005, largely uniform defamation legislation was enacted in each Australian state and territory (the Uniform Defamation Acts) to harmonise Australian defamation laws. This legislation modifies certain common law principles relating to the question of whether and in what circumstances a cause of action arises, and in relation to damages. It also contains statutory defamation defences that apply in addition to common law defamation defences.

In Australia, it is necessary for a defamation plaintiff to establish:

  1. publication (which may occur by any means of communication);
  2. a defamatory meaning (a meaning that would be likely to cause the ordinary reasonable reader to think less of the plaintiff, or to shun and avoid him or her); and
  3. identification (that some or all readers would understand the relevant communication as relating to the plaintiff).

The Uniform Defamation Acts provide that for-profit companies with 10 or more employees do not have a cause of action for defamation.6 It also changes the choice of law principle applicable to publication to persons within Australia, such that the applicable law is the law with the closest connection with the harm occasioned by the publication, which is determined by reference to a number of factors.7

Once a cause of action is established, the defendant will be liable unless it, he or she can establish a defence. The statutory defences are in addition to their common law counterparts. Key defences include:

  1. common law and statutory qualified privilege defences;
  2. fair protected report defences (which protect fair reports of court, tribunal and parliamentary proceedings);
  3. justification (truth) defences;
  4. contextual truth defence;
  5. an honest opinion defence (which requires that the material for comment is included in or adequately referred to in the matter complained of);
  6. innocent dissemination (of particular relevance to internet content hosts, newsagents and other distributors); and
  7. triviality defence.

In addition, Clause 91 of Schedule 5 of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (Cth) provides immunity from state and territory laws and common law and equitable principles to internet service providers and internet content hosts where they are not aware of the nature of the content in question. Clause 91 has not been considered by the courts, and the extent of the protection that it gives such entities is uncertain.

There has been controversy in the past year in relation to certain decisions concerning liability for online publications.

The High Court in Trkulja v. Google LLC 8 rejected findings by the Court of Appeal, which, in effect, applied special tests and considerations to determine whether search engine results were capable of defaming a plaintiff. The Trkulja case also confirms that search engines bear the onus of establishing ‘that the degree of its participation in the publication of the impugned search results was such that it should not be held liable’.9

In the case of Voller v. Nationwide News Pty Ltd; Voller v. Fairfax Media Publications Pty Ltd; and Voller v. Australian News Channel Pty Ltd 10 (Voller), media organisations were found to be ‘primary publishers’ of third-party comments made on their Facebook sites, with the consequence that they are liable for those comments as publishers from the time that they are posted regardless of whether they have received any complaint. This decision has been appealed, and media organisations have criticised it.11

There is currently a review by the Defamation Working Party of Australia’s defamation laws. That review has the support of Commonwealth, state and territory attorneys general. It is considering issues including whether to introduce a ‘serious harm’ test and what rules should apply in relation to online publications, including whether there should be clear take down requirements.12

ii Privacy laws

Privacy in Australia is regulated by a complex web of Commonwealth, state and territory legislation, as well as equitable (confidentiality) and potentially also common law principles.

The principal privacy law in Australia is the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth). This Act contains 13 Australian Privacy Principles that are the primary rules relating to collection, use and disclosure of, and access to, data held by private sector organisations, including media organisations.

Importantly, there is an exemption in the Privacy Act in relation to acts in the course of journalism by media organisations that have publicly committed to standards dealing with privacy in a media context. Most media organisations have made relevant public commitments (eg, to the Press Council Privacy Principles,13 or, in the case of broadcasters, the relevant code of practice).14 This is important, as the Australian Privacy Principles would otherwise prevent media organisations from collecting sensitive information without consent, except in very limited circumstances.15

The ACCC Report focuses on advertising technology and other privacy practices of digital platforms. It concludes that certain changes should be made to Australian privacy laws, and raises the question of whether they should be more broadly reviewed. The Treasury is receiving submissions in relation to the ACCC Report, and the government will then respond to it.

There is mixed case law in Australia on the question of whether there is a cause of action for invasion of privacy either in the form of a tort or as a species of breach of confidence. In Australian Broadcasting Corporation v. Lenah Game Meats Pty Ltd,16 the High Court left the question of whether such a cause of action is available open. Since then, lower courts have, in different cases, made conflicting decisions about whether such a cause of action exists and on what basis. In Doe v. Fairfax Media Publications Pty Ltd,17 Fullerton J considered whether there was a cause of action based on equitable duties of confidence in relation to a victim of sexual assault in relation to an alleged breach of the statutory prohibition on publication of identification of the victims in proceedings in Section 578A of the Crimes Act. Fullerton J found that no such cause of action was available. Ultimately, however, the question of whether there is a breach of privacy cause of action in tort or as a species of breach of confidence will be determined by the High Court (the Australian ultimate court of appeal) or by statute. The ACCC Report recommends that a statutory privacy tort be introduced. The government will respond to that proposal after further submissions have been received and considered. Similar proposals have been made by the Australian Law Reform Commission previously (most recently in 2014) and have not resulted in any change to the law.18

iii Additional regulation of broadcasters

Broadcasters are also regulated under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (Cth), and are subject to licence conditions, codes and standards developed in accordance with the Act.

Key content rules for television broadcasters are contained in the Commercial Television Code of Practice. The Code contains rules relating to advertising time and placement on television, gambling advertising, programme classification and rules for news reporting requiring accuracy, fairness and respect for privacy. The Code is registered by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). Content standards promulgated by the ACMA contain Australian content requirements. There are also children’s television standards.

Radio broadcasters are similarly subject to a similar regulatory scheme, and the Commercial Radio Code of Practice, which is registered with the ACMA, contains key rules relating to content.

iv Additional regulation of the internet

Schedule 7 of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 enables the ACMA to issue notices to hosting services, live content services and links services in relation to prohibited content (generally content that is refused classification or in breach of classification requirements). Schedule 8 regulates online gambling services.

v Key regulators

The ACMA is the key regulator for broadcasters, internet service providers and in relation to direct marketing by electronic means. It administers legislation, including the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (Cth), the Spam Act 2003 (Cth) and the Telecommunications Act 1997 (Cth).

The Australian Privacy Commissioner has responsibility for administering the key private sector privacy legislation, the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth).

The ACCC has recently become active in the media law area, as discussed in Section I.

The Australian Press Council is a self-regulatory body that hears complaints in relation to publications by print and online publishers.


i Protected forms of expression

Australia does not have any express constitutional freedom of speech.

However, the Australian High Court has repeatedly confirmed that an implied freedom of speech in relation to government and political matters arises from Australia’s Constitution. When construing legislation, a presumption applies that the law was intended to be consistent with this implied constitutional freedom (which may affect the way in which it is interpreted). Laws that are not consistent with the implied constitutional freedom even after that presumption has been applied are invalid.

A majority of the High Court in McCloy and Others v. New South Wales and Another found that the test for the constitutional validity of a law is as follows:

1. Does the law effectively burden the freedom in its terms, operation or effect?
If ‘no’, then the law does not exceed the implied limitation and the enquiry as to validity ends.
2. If ‘yes’ to question 1, are the purpose of the law and the means adopted to achieve that purpose legitimate, in the sense that they are compatible with the maintenance of the constitutionally prescribed system of representative government? This question reflects what is referred to in these reasons as ‘compatibility testing’.
The answer to that question will be in the affirmative if the purpose of the law and the means adopted are identified and are compatible with the constitutionally prescribed system in the sense that they do not adversely impinge upon the functioning of the system of representative government.
If the answer to question 2 is ‘no’, then the law exceeds the implied limitation and the enquiry as to validity ends.
3. If ‘yes’ to question 2, is the law reasonably appropriate and adapted to advance that legitimate object? This question involves what is referred to in these reasons as ‘proportionality testing’ to determine whether the restriction which the provision imposes on the freedom is justified.
The proportionality test involves consideration of the extent of the burden effected by the impugned provision on the freedom. There are three stages to the test – these are the enquiries as to whether the law is justified as suitable, necessary and adequate in its balance in the following senses:
  • suitable – as having a rational connection to the purpose of the provision;
  • necessary – in the sense that there is no obvious and compelling alternative, reasonably practicable means of achieving the same purpose which has a less restrictive effect on the freedom;
  • adequate in its balance – a criterion requiring a value judgment, consistently with the limits of the judicial function, describing the balance between the importance of the purpose served by the restrictive measure and the extent of the restriction it imposes on the freedom.
If the measure does not meet these criteria of proportionality testing, then the answer to question 3 will be ‘no’ and the measure will exceed the implied limitation on legislative power.19

The High Court considered these principles in 2019 in the context of laws restricting communication, and protest, in relation to the subject of abortion in safe access zones near abortion clinics. Those laws were found to be constitutionally valid. The Court found that they were for a legitimate purpose (to protect the privacy and dignity of people attending the clinic) and were not disproportionate (they were neutral as between pro and anti-abortion view points, and only applied in a restricted area). The law relating to communication generally was not found to burden political speech as it was not connected to any election process (which meant that it did not infringe the implied freedom). The law in relation to protests was found to burden political speech, and was found to be valid on the basis above (it was for a legitimate purpose and was not disproportionate).

There is also case law to support the proposition that principles of open justice are similarly the subject of implied constitutional protection. In Russell v. Russell,20 a Commonwealth law requiring state courts to hold family law proceedings in closed court was found by a majority of the High Court to be constitutionally invalid. Barwick C J observed that ‘the courts of the States . . . are in general required, because of the nature of the courts themselves and of the functions they perform, to sit and exercise jurisdiction in a place open to the public’. The Court in that case found that the Commonwealth did not have power to regulate state courts, and that the circumstances in which state courts can be closed must be regulated by state legislatures.

Principles of open justice have been the subject of close attention in the past year for two reasons. First, the NSW Law Reform Commission is conducting a review of laws affecting open justice, and the Victorian Law Reform Commission is conducting a review of contempt laws.21 Second, journalists and media organisations have been charged with contempt in relation to publications in connection with the trial of Archbishop George Pell.

ii Newsgathering

Key laws affecting newsgathering in Australia include the law of trespass, surveillance laws and criminal laws prohibiting the release to the media of certain information concerning government and security matters.

Under the law of trespass, journalists can go to the front door of a private property to request permission to film, but if refused permission cannot thereafter film on the property.

Australia has state, territory and Commonwealth surveillance laws, which are different in substance. Consequently, it is important to understand which laws apply in the state or territory in which newsgathering activities are undertaken. There are surveillance laws affecting the recording of conversations, use of devices to hear or monitor conversations, video recording, use of tracking devices and computer surveillance. In relation to the recording of conversations, the Commonwealth law applies in respect of any communications intercepted when passing over the public switched telephony network, and state and territory laws generally otherwise apply. The applicable law is generally that of the state in which the recording is made.

Carriers and carriage service providers have obligations to retain certain telecommunications under the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1997 (Cth). Those obligations have been criticised on the basis that they give certain intelligence agencies a means to identify journalists’ sources. In order to do so, they must obtain a warrant from a judicial officer or lawyer appointed by the relevant minister. Hearings take place in secret and without participation by the journalist, which has given rise to concern about the adequacy of the protection this process offers.22

iii Freedom of access to government information

Australia has a federal system, with Commonwealth, state and territory governments. Freedom of information legislation is in place in relation to the Commonwealth and each state and territory.23 The legislation enables journalists to seek access to documents held by government agencies. The documents must be produced unless an exception applies. Media organisations are concerned that agencies too often rely upon exceptions and have called for reforms to facilitate more extensive, and faster, media access to important government documents.24

Court rules also allow for journalists to seek access to documents about court proceedings. In general, access is allowed to material read or relied upon in open court unless a suppression order is in place, or there are exceptional circumstances. In general, access to material on a court file that has not yet been read or relied on in open court is not readily given.

iv Protection of sources

Article 3 of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance Code of Ethics requires that journalists should aim to attribute information to its source and not agree to anonymity without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative attributable source. It provides that ‘where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances’. Australian professional journalists generally abide by this rule, and some have gone to jail for not revealing sources when ordered to do so.

The newspaper rule (also known as ‘the rule in Cojuangco’) allows media organisations to avoid disclosing sources until the final hearing of a defamation action. If, however, a journalist gives evidence at the final hearing (which is important for defences such as statutory qualified privilege) and is asked to reveal a source then he or she is obliged to do so, and refusal to do so constitutes contempt.

Under Section 126K of the Evidence Act (Cth), journalists are protected from compulsion to disclose confidential sources, but this is subject to a power of the court to order disclosure if it is satisfied that the public interest in requiring an answer outweighs countervailing public and private interests. Each state and territory, except for the Northern Territory, has similar provisions in place.

v Private action against publication

The main basis upon which injunctive relief restraining publication is obtained in Australia is breach of confidence. This cause of action is available where the journalist is subject to a duty of confidence or (more commonly) is on notice of a breach of confidence by his or her source. Equity generally imposes a duty of confidence on a person who is on notice that information has been imparted to him, her or it in breach of confidence.

Australian courts do not generally grant injunctive relief on the basis of defamation. The reason for this is that the courts recognise that there is a public interest in freedom of speech.

vi Government action against publication

In June 2019, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) executed search warrants against media companies and journalists related to media coverage critical of the government and defence force. The relevant coverage was as follows:

  1. In 2017, the state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) published a series of stories collectively called The Afghan Files, which detailed allegations regarding members of the Australian special forces when on tour in Afghanistan, including allegations of unlawful killings.
  2. In 2018, News Corporation’s newspaper The Daily Telegraph published a story reporting that the heads of the Defence and Home Affairs ministries had discussed the potential for the Australian Signals Directorate to be given powers to secretly access emails, bank accounts and other personal data, provided it had approval from relevant government ministers.

The AFP executed search warrants at the ABC’s Sydney-based head office, as well as at the home of a News Corporation journalist, Annika Smethurst. The search warrants were the result of investigations into the alleged unauthorised disclosure of government information by a Commonwealth officer, contrary to Section 70 of the Crimes Act 1914 (Cth) (since repealed and replaced by Part 5.6 of the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth)).

While this legislation is framed broadly, as an offence akin to breach of confidentiality, it has been used in this instance to address concerns regarding the handling of national security information.

The AFP is currently prosecuting one former Commonwealth official and his lawyer in relation to allegations that they leaked documents pertaining to the ABC’s publication. The AFP has also confirmed that it is considering prosecutions against the journalists who authored the publications. These matters are ongoing.

On 4 July 2019, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security commenced an inquiry into the impact of the exercise of law enforcement and intelligence powers on the freedom of the press. The Committee has been requested to report back to both houses of parliament in the near future.

In October 2019, Australia’s major media organisations, through Australia’s ‘right to know’, launched a campaign against Australian government secrecy seeking reform of laws, including better whistleblower protections and court oversight of various government powers. The campaign included extensive advertising and editorial content highlighting the problems with existing laws and practices.


i Copyright and related rights

The Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) (the AU Copyright Act) is the predominant source of Australia’s copyright law and gives protection to:

  1. ‘works’, being literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works; and
  2. ‘subject matter other than works’ (sound recordings, cinematograph films, radio broadcasts, television broadcasts and published editions).

The AU Copyright Act gives rights holders the exclusive right to carry out certain acts in respect of copyright-protected material in Australia, including the communication of the work to the public, and provides for various mechanisms for enforcement if those rights are exercised by others without authorisation. Protections have recently been extended to allow rights holders to obtain website-blocking injunctions.

For copyright to subsist in a work or subject matter other than works under the AU Copyright Act:

  1. the work must be original25 (there is no requirement of originality for the subsistence of copyright in subject matter other than works);
  2. it must have the necessary ‘connecting factor’ between the relevant material and the author or Australia. The required connecting factor depends not only on the type of material but also on whether or not the work has been published. For example, for a published sound recording, copyright subsists if the maker was an Australian citizen or person resident in Australia or a body corporate incorporated under a law of the Commonwealth or a state of Australia,26 the recording was made in Australia,27 or the first publication of the recording took place in Australia;28 and
  3. most types of works or subject matter other than works must be reduced to a material form. For example, in the case of a literary work, it must be reduced to writing or some other material form.29 However, a sound or television broadcast is protected once it is made from a place in Australia.30

Australian copyright law largely reflects the basic framework provided by the Berne Convention: national treatment and automatic protection are reflected in the AU Copyright Act. However, there are some variations. For example,the terms of protection in Australia are longer than the minimums provided for under the Berne Convention. Generally, the AU Copyright Act provides protection for the life of the author, and 70 years after the end of the year of the author’s death. In respect of duration of protection, see item (c).31

Recent changes to Australian copyright law include:

  1. measures to prevent online piracy. On 11 December 2018, the website-blocking provisions in Section 115A of the AU Copyright Act were amended and expanded to make it easier for rights holders to obtain injunctions requiring internet service providers to block access to online locations facilitating copyright infringement. The provisions now also allow for injunctions that require search engine providers to prevent the dissemination of search results that link to online locations facilitating copyright infringement;
  2. extension of ‘safe harbours’. On 29 December 2018, further limitations were introduced on liability under the AU Copyright Act of service providers in the disability, education and cultural sectors in relation to their activities online; and
  3. changes to copyright duration. On 1 January 2019, new time limitations for copyright protection came into force, and protection for unpublished materials became subject to a time limitation (previously unlimited). In certain circumstances, durations are, in effect, now shortened.

Recent notable infringement or enforcement disputes include:

  1. Roadshow Films Pty Limited v. Telstra Corporation Limited:32 successful application pursuant to Section 115A of the AU Copyright Act by film studios resulting in the blocking of various domain names and IP addresses, accessible via apps installed on TV smart boxes;
  2. Australasian Performing Right Association Ltd v. Telstra Corporation Limited:33 successful application pursuant to Section 115A of the AU Copyright Act by music rights holders resulting in the blocking of various domain names of websites providing facilities for material to be ripped from YouTube sites; and
  3. Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation (Australia) Pty Ltd v. Redbubble Ltd & Anor:34 claim by Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation (Australia) Pty Ltd, which included a copyright infringement claim, against Redbubble, operator of a website allowing users to upload images on various goods, before arranging the production and distribution of goods. The copyright claim failed due to lack of proof of ownership, but it was found that Redbubble would have infringed copyright, in operating the relevant website, if ownership had been established.

The most significant recent reform proposal has been recommendation 8 of the ACCC Report, following its recent inquiry in digital platforms. Recommendation 8 proposes that digital platforms (online search engines, social media and digital content aggregators) be subject to a mandatory industry code providing for certain standards around copyright take-down requests. It is proposed that under the code, among other matters, digital platforms would be subject to certain time frames to act on copyright take-down requests. An intended consequence of this recommendation is the increased likelihood that digital platforms could, in certain circumstances, be found to be authorisers of copyright infringement under the AU Copyright Act.

ii Personality rights

Australia does not have personality rights in the same sense as the US.

Some relevant protection is, however, provided under the Australian Consumer Law (ACL), Schedule to the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (Cth) (CCA), and the tort of passing off, and it is common for plaintiffs to rely upon both of these causes of action. For example, in Hogan v. Pacific Dunlop Ltd,35 Paul Hogan, the actor who portrayed Crocodile Dundee, successfully sued Pacific Dunlop Ltd, which used a proximate portrayal of the Crocodile Dundee character in its advertising, which was found to be a misleading representation that Mr Dundee endorsed Dunlop.

The ACL prohibits a number of unfair business practices. Section 18 of the CCA prohibits conduct in trade or commerce that is misleading or deceptive or likely to mislead or deceive. The CCA provides for private rights of suit against individuals and corporations that engage in this conduct, which can be used to protect personality rights.

In addition, Section 29(1) specifically prohibits individuals and corporations, in trade or commerce, in connection with the supply or possible supply of goods or services or in connection with their promotion, from:

  1. making false or misleading representations that a particular person has agreed to acquire goods or services;
  2. making false or misleading representations that purport to be testimonials by any person relating to goods or services;
  3. making false or misleading representations, relating to goods or services, concerning:
    • a testimonial by any person; or
    • a representation that purports to be such a testimonial;
  4. making false or misleading representations that goods or services have sponsorship, approval, performance characteristics accessories, uses or benefits; or
  5. making false or misleading representations that the person making the representation has a sponsorship, approval or affiliation.

Reputation is also frequently protected by way of defamation (see Section III.v).

iii Unfair business practices

A variety of different laws may be brought to bear in relation to editorial malpractice. These include copyright (in the case of misappropriation), restrictions on publication, such as sub judice contempt of court, and the laws of defamation. There are also standards and codes of practice enforced by bodies such as the Australian Press Council (with respect to newspapers, magazines and associated digital titles) and the Australian Communications and Media Authority (with respect to broadcasting and telecommunications). For example, in 2018, the Australian Communications and Media Authority found that a segment that aired on a network television morning programme, Sunrise, provoked serious contempt on the basis of race in breach of the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice. Litigation was commenced by the network over the decision but later ceased.


i Enforcement proceedings

In 2019, Australian courts handed down two key judgments in the media and entertainment space. The first case is a prosecution brought by the ACCC against ticket reseller Viagogo AG. In this case, the Federal Court found that Viagogo contravened the ACL, and misled consumers. Viagogo’s impugned conduct included claiming that tickets to certain events were scarce when this only related to the number of tickets available on Viagogo’s platform, creating a false sense of urgency. The Federal Court also found that Viagogo’s use of the word ‘official’ on its website and online marketing was misleading, as consumers were led to think that they were purchasing tickets from an official retailer, when in fact, Viagogo is only a reselling platform. It was also held that Viagogo failed to sufficiently disclose additional fees or specify a single price for tickets.

The second case was a prosecution brought by the ACCC against Valve Corporation, one of the largest online gaming retailers and operators of the Steam distribution platform. In this case, the Federal Court held that Valve breached the ACL by representing that consumers were not entitled to receive a refund for any games. This representation was held to mislead customers as to the nature of consumer guarantees. Valve was ordered to pay a penalty of A$3 million.

ii Mergers and acquisitions

In October 2017, the ACCC updated its Media Merger Guidelines36 in response to changes to Australia’s media control and ownership laws under the Broadcasting Service Act 1992. Since these reforms, the ACCC has approved several key mergers and acquisitions in the media and entertainment industry in Australia, including the merger of Nine Entertainment and Fairfax Media (which created Australia’s largest media company). In the past 24 months, it has also approved JCDecaux SA’s acquisition of APN Outdoor Group Limited, oOh!media Limited’s acquisition of Adshel Street Furniture Pty Ltd, and Seven Network and Nine Network’s acquisition of Network Ten’s shares in TX Australia, a company providing transmission services.


Australia does not have any equivalent of the United States’ Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Clause 91 of Schedule 5 of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (Cth) provides immunity from state and territory laws and common law and equitable principles to internet service providers and internet content hosts where they are not aware of the nature of the content in question. Clause 91 has not been considered by the courts, and the extent of the protection that it gives these entities is uncertain. In particular, based on the decisions relating to publication principles discussed directly below, the threshold for relevantly having knowledge of the ‘nature of’ content may be low.

Online publications can give rise to civil liability under various doctrines, including defamation and (in cases where confidentiality has been breached) breach of confidence.

There are also various statutory crimes that affect publication online and elsewhere. A new crime relating to streamed content was introduced in 2019 in response to the streaming of shootings in New Zealand, with the passage of the Criminal Code Amendment (Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material) Act 2019 (the Act). The Act contains offences that apply to internet service providers, content services and hosting services in relation to failure to remove or report ‘abhorrent violent material’.

Material will only be abhorrent violent material if it meets four criteria. First, the material must be in the nature of streamed or recorded audio, visual or audiovisual material.

Second, it must record or stream ‘abhorrent violent conduct’, which is defined to include terrorist acts, murder, attempts to murder, torture, rape and kidnap.

Third, it must be material that reasonable persons would regard in all circumstances as being offensive.

Fourth, it must be ‘produced’ by a person (or two or more persons) who engaged in, conspired to engage in, attempted to engage in, or aided, abetted counselled or procured, or who was knowingly concerned in, the abhorrent violent conduct. It does not, therefore, apply in respect of material prepared by journalists (though it may apply in respect of any streaming by a journalist of footage originally produced by a perpetrator of the relevant conduct).

Failure to report

Section 474.33 of the Act makes it an offence for an internet service provider, content service or hosting service (together, the regulated providers) to fail to refer material to the AFP where the relevant person:

  1. is aware that the service provided by the person can be used to access particular material that the person has reasonable ground to believe is abhorrent violent material that records or streams abhorrent violent conduct that has occurred, or is occurring, in Australia; and
  2. does not refer details of the material to the AFP within a reasonable time of becoming aware of the existence of the material.

This is not the only offence relating to failure to report crime. For example, under Section 316(1) of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW), it is a crime punishable by up to two years in prison to fail to report a serious indictable offence.

Section 474.34 of the Act makes it an offence for a person to fail to ensure the expeditious removal of abhorrent violent material from a content service provided by that person. The fault element in relation to this material being accessible through the service and in relation to failure to expeditiously remove it is recklessness.

Defences to this offence are expressly provided for in Section 474.37(1) of the Act, which provides that the offence in Section 474.34(1) of the Act does not apply where:

  1. the material relates to a news report, or a current affairs report, that is in the public interest and is by a person working in a professional capacity as a journalist;
  2. the accessibility of the material relates to the development, performance, exhibition or distribution, in good faith, of an artistic work;
  3. the accessibility of the material is for the purpose of advocating the lawful procurement of a chance to any matter established by law, policy or practice in an Australian or foreign jurisdiction, and the accessibility of the material is reasonable in the circumstances for that purpose;
  4. the accessibility of the material is necessary for law enforcement purposes, or for monitoring compliance with, or investigating a contravention of, a law;
  5. the accessibility of the material is for a court proceeding;
  6. the accessibility of the material is necessary and reasonable for scientific, medical, academic or historical research; or
  7. the accessibility of the material is in connection with and reasonable for the purpose of an individual assisting a public official in relation to the public official’s duties or functions.

The Act added to relevant offences already in the Commonwealth Criminal Code. For example, Section 474.17 makes it an offence to use a carriage service in a way that reasonable persons would consider to be menacing, harassing or offensive. Section 474.22 makes it an offence to access, publish or transmit child abuse material, and Section 474.25 makes it an offence for an internet content provider or internet content host to fail to report child pornography material to the AFP within a reasonable time of becoming aware of it.

There are also state and territory statutory restrictions on publication and various offences that can be committed through internet publication.


Licensing disputes occasionally arise within the media and entertainment sector in Australia. They are heard at first instance before the Copyright Tribunal of Australia (the Tribunal), which has jurisdiction with respect to statutory licences (or statutory exclusions from infringement) and licences negotiated between the copyright owner, or its representative, and the licensee. A decision of the Tribunal can be appealed to the Federal Court.

The limits of the Tribunal’s powers were recently tested in Phonographic Performance Company of Australia Ltd v. Copyright Tribunal of Australia.37 The Phonographic Performance Company of Australia (PPCA) is an organisation representing copyright owners of sound recordings. In 2017, the Tribunal made a determination that the licensing scheme between PPCA and Foxtel should be varied to permit Foxtel to use the sound recordings on its streaming platform, Foxtel Now. On appeal, the Federal Court found that neither the PPCA nor its members were willing to grant Foxtel the right to stream their work on Foxtel Now. The Tribunal had overstepped its powers by proposing a scheme that is not in respect of rights that the licensor is willing to license.


As can be seen above, 2019 has been a year in which serious issues have been identified in relation to Australia’s existing media law settings, coupled with a concentrated effort to consider the changes that should be made.


In the coming year, the outcomes of the various review processes should become clear. At a minimum, it can be expected that changes will be made to defamation laws to address problems with the drafting of the 2005 laws that have emerged through case law (such as in relation to the current contextual truth). More substantial reform, such as introduction of a serious harm test, is also a possibility. The likely future of Australian privacy law and of regulation of the interactions between digital platforms and the media will also become clearer.


1 Sophie Dawson is a partner, Jarrad Parker and Joel Parsons are senior associates and Katrina Dang is an associate at Bird & Bird.

2 See www.aph.gov.au. Hearings were heard on 14 August 2019, 19 September 2019 and 20 September 2019. The Committee is due to report back to both houses of parliament on 28 November 2019.

3 See www.aph.gov.au. The closing date for submissions was 30 August 2019, and the Committee is due to report back on 4 December 2019.

4 Defamation Act 2013 (UK) Section 1(1); see also Lachaux v. Independent Print Limited & Ors [2015] EWHC 2242.

5 The public figure defence was established in New York Times Co v. Sullivan 376 US 254 (1964), and is a development of the common law qualified privilege defence. In Australia, there is a category of common law qualified privilege in relation to government and political matters that protects publications that are reasonable in the circumstances. The latter category flows from the implied constitutional freedom of speech in relation to government and political matters discussed in Section III.i.

6 See, for example, Section 9 of the Defamation Act 2005 (NSW).

7 See Section 11 of the Defamation Act 2005 (NSW). At common law, a cause of action arises each time defamatory material is read or received, and the law applicable to each cause of action is that of the place in which the recipient of the communication is situated: Dow Jones & Co Inc v. Gutnick (2002) 210 CLR 575.

8 (2018) 92 ALJR 619; [2018] HCA 25.

9 [2018] HCA 25 at [41].

10 [2019] NSWSC 766.

14 See, for example, the Australian Commercial Television Code of Practice, www.acma.gov.au/theACMA/About/The-ACMA-story/Regulating/broadcasting-codes-schemes-index-radio-content-regulation-i-acma.

15 See Australian Privacy Principle 3.3.

16 [2001] HCA 63.

17 [2018] NSWCA 1996.

18 See ‘Serious Invasions of Privacy in the Digital Era: Final Report’, ALRC Report 123, June 2014.

19 McCloy and Others v. New South Wales and Another (2015) 325 ALR 15 at 18–19 per French C J and Kiefel, Bell and Keane J J.

20 (1976) 9 ALR 103.

22 See, for example, ‘Impact of the Exercise of Law Enforcement and Intelligence Powers on the freedom of the press: submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on intelligence and security’, Professor Peter Fray, Professor Derek Wilding and Richard Coleman, 31 July 2019.

23 See, for example, the Freedom of Information Act 1992 (Cth).

25 AU Copyright Act, Section 32.

26 id., Section 89(1).

27 id., Section 89(2).

28 id., Section 89(3).

29 id., Section 22.

30 id., Section 91.

31 See the Resale Royalty Right for Visual Artists Act 2009 (Cth).

32 [2018] FCA 582.

33 [2019] FCA 751.

34 [2019] FCA 355.

35 (1988) 83 ALR 403.

36 The ACCC’s Media Merger Guidelines provide guidance on the ACCC’s approach when assessing whether to approve media mergers, and outline potential areas of focus for the ACCC when assessing mergers in the media sector.

37 [2019] 368 ALR 203.