Moderators liable for forum comments

  John B 16:58 17 Dec 2008
Locked

Could anyone offer guidance about legal responsibilities regarding potentially libellous comments on on-line forums / message boards?

If a libellous comment is made who carries the can (if any can is to be carried?)

I did find this click here

Any general guidance on responsibilities when running this type of facility would be gratefully received.

Thanks in advance

John

  Forum Editor 18:01 17 Dec 2008

that doesn't have a definitive answer. Eight years ago there was a high-profile case when Internet Service Provider Demon was sued by a Physicist for refusing to remove defamatory statements about him from an online Newsgroup discussion. The statements were posted by a forum member, but Demon was sued, and settled out of court by paying the man £200,000 in damages.

There have been other cases, and although some of them have been elsewhere in Europe there's no room for complacency.

My advice is that if you intend to run an online discussion forum you run it as a tight ship - check postings regularly, and delete anything that is in your opinion defamatory. Don't be bullied by third parties, but don't ignore anyone who complains - make it quite clear to your forum users that you will not tolerate defamatory statements or sweeping allegations that have no basis in fact.

Read as much as you can on the libel laws, and remember that it's not just possible to libel an individual - you can libel a group of people as well. If one of your forum users says, for example, that "All online forum editors are criminals" you might find yourself standing alongside him in a libel court, facing an action brought by the National Association of Forum Editors. If, on the other hand the same person posted saying that "I believe some online forum editors are criminals" it would be OK.

The rule is, if in doubt, delete - it's better to explain your action to an irritated forum user than to find yourself facing a libel action.

  John B 18:07 17 Dec 2008

If a site was 'unmoderated' and without guidance rules for users, would that alter the legal position should there be a complaint?

  Forum Editor 18:12 17 Dec 2008

The view expressed by most lawyers is that if you intend to run an unmoderated web forum you are simply asking for trouble. Sooner or later (probably sooner if my experience is anything to go by) someone will post a libel.

You, as the operator of the forum could be 'jointly and severally liable' for libels that are posted on your site, whether you moderate it or not, and I definitely do not recommend an unmoderated forum. If you can't spare the time to moderate your forum, or to have someone do it for you, it would be better not to run a forum at all.

  John B 18:36 17 Dec 2008

Thank you again

John

  laurie53 21:18 17 Dec 2008

Just as a matter of interest, can I assume that you, as FE, are obliged in law to reveal the "off-line" identity of anyone facing such a suit?

  Arthur Scrimshaw 19:34 19 Dec 2008

spat on USENET a few years ago where an individual called John Bunt attempted to sue the ISPs of some other posters about comments they had made about him on USENET, also alleging they had forced an online business of his to close because of negative comments about the products he was selling.
It went to court but was thrown out because the ISPs used a defence that they had removed defamatory comments they had been made aware of but couldn't police every posting made. The Judge did say he could pursue the individuals and sue but that they probably didn't have assets to cover the costs involved.

  Forum Editor 20:04 19 Dec 2008

We may be obliged - either by the police, if they are investigating a crime, or by an order made by a judge in chambers or in court - to divulge information we hold that would enable an authorised person or agency to trace the identity of an individual via an Internet Service provider's server logs.

Otherwise we are bound by the terms of UK data protection legislation, and we will not divulge any information that could personally identify an individual to a third party without his or her consent.

  laurie53 20:11 19 Dec 2008

Thanks

  Forum Editor 20:16 19 Dec 2008

Generally speaking the defence relied upon by the ISPs involved - that they had removed defamatory statements once they were made aware of them - would succeed, provided a court was satisfied that a) the ISP acted promptly, once informed, and that b)the ISP could not have reasonably been expected to know about the statements otherwise.

A post-moderated forum like ours see hundreds of posts a day being published, and there's always a chance that something will slip through the net for a while. Courts understand this, and provided you can satisfy them that you did your best to act quickly, once you knew about something you should be OK.

Far better of course to avoid defamatory comments in the first place, and this is largely a case of developing a forum ethos - if people know that you run a fairly strict forum in terms of language and acceptable content they are far less likely to cross the line. Allow a free-for-all, anything goes atmosphere and you're asking for trouble.

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