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Facebook, Twitter, ordered not to spoil MURDER trial

Social networks challenged by Oz Magistrate, but show little sign of compliance

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The Deputy Chief Magistrate in the Australian State of Victoria, Felicity Broughton, has ordered Facebook and Twitter must remove material that may prejudice a murder trial.

The future trial of Adrian Ernest Bayley will be watched with exceptionally keen interest in Australia, as Bailey's alleged crimes – the rape and murder of young Irish woman Jill Meagher after an ordinary and innocent night out – sparked a very substantial reaction on social media. A 20,000-strong street march in Meagher's memory protested both her death and violence against women.

Social media has since carried many hateful remarks about Bailey, leading his defence – and Police – to call for removal of such remarks lest they prejudice the case.

The Age reports Magistrate Broughton today upheld those requests, noting that while it may not be possible to remove all such material, she feels organisations like Facebook and Twitter are big enough to respond and to be held accountable.

But Facebook operates only a small office in Australia and has not, in the past, been particularly responsive to simpler requests for content removal. Twitter appears to have no Australian presence at all. Indeed, the micro-blog created an official TwitterAU account only yesterday.

The Reg has approached Twitter to learn if the account was started in response to incidents like this order for content removal. Twitter's reply pointed out it is an international site and that the company is "excited to now have an account for Australia." Twitter has not responded to our questions about whether the new account is an effort to become more accountable to Australian authorities.

The court order comes at a very interesting moment for social media in Australia, as in recent weeks it has become the forum for mass protests on several topics. A recent sexist remark by radio host Alan Jones led to the formation of a 10,000+ member group opposed to sexism. A later tasteless remark by Jones about Prime Minister Julia Gillard's recently-deceased father having “died of shame” saw dozens of advertisers boycott his program after more than 100,000 signed an online petition.

The radio station labelled those two online efforts as cyber bullying, which sparked a further round of online protest.

In the last 24 hours, social media has been used by many Australians to express criticism of mainstream media for failing to celebrate Prime Minister Gillard's rousing anti-sexism speech (YouTube) delivered on the floor of parliament. Mainstream media took a wider view of the speech in the context of the day's political activities, pointing out that no matter how impressive the oratory, it resulted in a Pyrrhic victory for the Prime Minister and her minority government, at best.

Overseas media focused on the speech alone, leaving many Australians to wonder why their own new outlets did not give it the same weight.

Recent events come just weeks after a local newspaper started a campaign to "Stop the Trolls" after celebrities were bullied online. That campaign used those incidents to promote a reduction in overall cyber bullying, partly in response to youth suicides sparked by cruel comments on social media.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy supported that campaign and has even raised the desirability of legislation that would compel social network operators to be more responsive, if they do not become more responsive to community concerns.

Facebook and Twitter's response to Magistrate Broughton's order will therefore be watched very closely. ®

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