Elon Musk’s X is liable for hate speech posted on its platform and is subject to local Australian law despite being based in the US, a Queensland Tribunal has found, in a judgement that potentially sets a significant precedent.

The Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT) ruled last week that X is subject to Queensland anti-discrimination laws and action can be taken against it for content posted on the platform that is in breach of Australian domestic law.

The ruling is a major setback for the tech giant and other large social media firms, which typically argue that they don’t have to answer for content that may be in breach of foreign laws as they are based in the US and do not actually do business in these locations.

In her ruling, QCAT senior member Ann Fitzpatrick rejected this argument and found that X does carry out business in the state and must operate under its local laws.

“I think there is a sufficient basis to conclude that the business of X Corp does not operate in isolation in the USA,” Fitzpatrick said in the ruling.

“It is significantly more than a blogging platform. By the capabilities of the internet, it is able to engage in activity anywhere in the world to earn revenue from advertising.”

The decision can serve as a precedent that local anti-discrimination and hate speech laws do apply to multinational social media firms such as X and Facebook parent company Meta.

Discriminatory content

The QCAT case was brought by the Australian Muslim Advocacy Network (AMAN) in in early 2023, after a complaint was first made to the Queensland Human Rights Commissioner regarding posts on X that “denigrated, dehumanised and demonised the Muslim community” and portrayed “Muslims as an existential threat”.

AMAN is arguing that the content posted on X was in contravention of the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act, and that the company is responsible for this content.

X attempted to have the case thrown out by arguing that it is a foreign corporation that is not registered in Australia, and operates the platform in question from California, US.

While the company has a registered Australian entity, the X lawyers argued that it does not host, operate or control the actual platform.

In QCAT, X argued that it “engages in no conduct in Queensland” as it has no fixed or definite place of business in the state.

But Fitzpatrick said that X is actively operating in Queensland.

“I find that entering contracts with subscribers, earning revenue from advertisers in Queensland and enabling advertisers to target Queensland subscribers to X Corp, falls within the ordinary understanding of carrying on business,” she said.

A precedent

AMAN legal advisor Rita Jabri Markwell said the QCAT ruling may enable individuals and organisations to take direct action against platforms like X over content that they host.

“The significance of this decision is that we now know that local hate speech laws do apply to social media companies,” Markwell told the ABC.

“Usually people will bring vilification complaints against other individuals. But now they can take direct action against the companies that are profiting from that hate.

“This could become a precedent that will carry weight in other jurisdictions, whether it’s at the federal level, or whether it’s under other vilification laws.”

The ruling serves to “pierce a favourite legal shield of social media giants”, Markwell said.

The legal loss comes as X is embroiled in a dispute with the federal government’s eSafety Commissioner over videos of the recent Sydney church stabbing being hosted on the platform.

The eSafety Commissioner had ordered X to take down posts featuring the video worldwide, but X moved to geo-block them in Australia and refused to take them down elsewhere.

X recently had a legal victory in the matter, with the federal court refusing to extend a temporary order for the social media giant to hide the videos.

The federal government is also set to launch a wide-ranging inquiry into big tech firms including X.