Blogs, social media websites, and chat rooms are just a few examples of places where millions of people all over the world discuss and express their opinions on all sorts of things. What happens when someone doesn't play nice and writes something untrue or unflattering about someone else?
As a general rule, the person who wrote it may get sued for defamation. But what might happen to you as the moderator or owner of the website?
In the US, moderators of blogs and owners of social media sites have some legal protection when it comes to other people's posts or comments. Section 302 of the Communication Decency Act of 1996 (which is part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996), states: "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."
"Interactive computer service" includes practically anything that allows multiple users to access a computer server, such as internet service providers (ISP) and web "hosts." "Provider" includes your website or blog; "user" includes anyone who posts to your site or blog. Bloggers and moderators can be both. If you write or post messages on your blog or edit them, you're a user. If you let others post to your blog, you're a provider.
So, comments or messages left by others on your blog or message board is "information provided by another content provider," and if they contain any defamatory statements, you can't be held responsible. Likewise, if you edit other users' messages or comments - such as by deleting obscene language or images - you're still protected by section 302.
Not So Everywhere
Not everyone's fortunate to have these protections. For example, in the United Kingdom (UK), ISPs, web hosts, and others can't be held legally liable for information they store or pass on to users unless they created it or edited the information even for spelling or grammar, even if it isn't the specific post in question.
In a recent case, the UK's highest court ruled that a blog owner was liable for defamatory statements made by a user on his blog because he exercised editorial control over the blog. The court went on to say that fixing spelling and grammar errors in another user's messages or comments could make a blog owner liable for anything defamatory on the site.
Know Your Limits
Even with section 302, you may still face legal problems when it comes to posting materials to your blog, message board, or website or editing messages left by others:
- Like any other user, you're responsible for any statements you make or post on your site. Section 302 doesn't give blog or site owners any special protection when it comes to their own comments
- If you copy information or materials from other websites, blogs, or message boards and then re-post them on your own site, section 302 may or may not protect you. It's best to be careful and check the materials for truthfulness and accuracy
- Be careful when editing! If you make a mistake and change the meaning of another person's post, you may be liable - the edited statement may be treated as your own.
For example, say a user posts a message, "John Doe is a (obscene word) crooked politician but he's never been convicted of a crime." You make a mistake when editing out the obscene word and the revised message reads, "John Doe is a crooked politician; he's been convicted of a crime." If John Doe has never been convicted of a crime, he may sue you for defamation
- Post some rules for your blog or message board. For example, ask users to register or post messages using their real names and warn users that inappropriate language or images will be removed and the user's access restricted
- Also know that messages posted to some discussion boards may be indexed by search engines and others may be able to see it
Blogs, message boards and the like let us express ourselves and share our opinions. They're fun and serve a valuable purpose. If everyone exercises some care and knows and follows the rules, they can be used and operated without fear of legal trouble.
Questions for Your Attorney
- How can I find out the real name of someone who posted a defamatory statement about me on a blog?
- I live in Michigan. I run my blog on a computer server located in Canada, does section 230 protect me, or is my blog subject to Canadian law?
- I closed my blog about one year ago. I'm being sued for defamation over a post made on the blog before I closed it. Does he have a case against me?