Legal responsibilities of webmasters
by Brian Turner
Liabilities of forums and blogs
While many webmasters can strictly control the content they publish on their sites, when it comes to online communities – such as forums and blogs – the issue of third party comments can become an acute legal issue.
This is not least where complaints of defamation are raised in response to third-party comments.
The legal responsibilities of webmasters in such instances naturally varies between countries according to national laws.
In a nutshell, defamation relates to the making of untrue derogatory public comments, which are damaging to an individual or organisation.
The two most common forms of defamation are held to be slander and libel, but a general accusation of defamation in itself is a serious matter.
In the USA, webmasters may be protected on the issue of publishing defamatory comments by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This means that the poster – not webmaster – may be legally responsible for the comments made.
However, in the UK, the law will hold the publisher liable as well. And unlike most English laws, an act of defamation is presumed to be false, unless it can be proven otherwise.
Dealing with defamation
It can be difficult to recognised when a comment is defamatory or not.
For example, forums can commonly host complaints about third-parties – often companies – and these may be based on personal experiences.
However, it is important to note the distinction between personal opinion and outright defamation.
“My personal experience with XYZ wasn’t very good, I felt they delivered a poor service”
may not be regarded as defamatory, but the following almost certainly will:
“XYZ company is bunch of scammers who are only out to steal your money”
In instances of recognisable defamation taking place, the responsible action is to remove it.
If you do not, you may find yourself facing substantial legal costs, even if no case ever reaches court.
You should also consider carefully about drawing undue publicity to any specific complaint – should the matter ever go to court, a judge may award increased damages to reflect the increased damage caused by such publicity.
Experience of defamation
Recently, Platinax was held to be hosting defamatory comments regarding the practices of another business.
The approach of Platinax was naive – it assumed that the complaints were valid customer complaints. When approached by the company to remove the comments, the request was not treated with the seriousness required.
When the company raised their complaint via its solicitors, Platinax Internet Ltd was forced to take legal advice and make a reply from their own solicitors – resulting in a £500 legal bill, and wiping out its advertising revenues to date.
Point being, learning to deal with defamation in a responsible way can be expensive.
Publishing third-party comments online carries risks – the larger your internet community, the greater those risks become.
Of course, responsible moderating can negate a great deal of risks – but you cannot be free of them.
A particular reason for Platinax not taking the more recent claim of defamation seriously, is because as the administrator of multiple forums, I have been threatened with potential legal action a number of times already.
These have usually been prompted through plain miscommunication, or even plain spite, especially when banning disruptive members. In such instances, the complaints were treated as having no reasonable recourse in law.
The lesson here is that you should treat all complaints on their own merit, and not be overly dismissive of any complaints for any reason.
After all, be aware that even in the case of the most blatantly unreasonable complaints, some individuals may be bloody-minded enough to pursue them through the legal process.
You may not simply be held personally responsible for legal claims raised against comments made on your forums or blog – if there is no clear distinction, then associated business interests may also be held to account.
For example, I operate a marketing company, but I also operate the UK’s largest interfaith forum (soon to apply for charitable status), as well as the UK’s largest independent science fiction and fantasy community.
Both generated losses that were sustained by my marketing company. Unless arrangements were made clear otherwise, legal claims against those forums may also have impacted my marketing company.
It’s for that reason that I recently incorporated my major forums as limited companies in their own right.
This means that it reduces issues of liability to my marketing company, and presents those sites as companies, with legal accountability for how they operate – and what they publish.
Creating a limited company is no longer an expensive process. Simple Formations allows you to incorporate a UK limited company online from as little as £40.
- Running forums or blogs, where third-parties can post content, increases your legal liabilities.
- This is particularly in the case of defamation, where UK publishers are held to account for publishing such content, even if they are not the originators.
- Ensuring that your forum is well moderated, and obviously defamatory content is removed, makes for good practice.
- However, should you be charged with publishing defamatory material, simply addressing the issue can be expensive, even if the case does not go to court.
- You can try and reduce your personal and commercial liabilities by incorporating your site as a limited liability company.
- However, at the end of the day, if you are approached with a complaint that content on your sites is defamatory, simply removing it is the safest way forward.
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