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It's bloody hard to run a forum (in Sweden)

Court report, readers comments

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Update Aftonbladet, a leading Swedish evening newspaper, pulled down its online comment forums, following a court ruling this week that it was responsible for death threats against Jews posted on its site.

The forum is now operating again, but only during business hours (including the weekend), readers tell us.

The posts expressing pro-Nazi prejudices were made in October 2000, but "owing to some technical problems, they were not deleted from the forum (which is moderated) for some time," Kuro5hin.org, the US tech/culture discussion site, reports.

The editors subsequently removed the posts but were charged with agitating against an ethnic (and not religious as we said earlier) group.

And they were found guilty! The court ruled that Aftonbladet was responsible, as a publisher, for the comments posted on its site. Clearly, it becomes bloody difficult to run an open online forum in Sweden, if the publishers are held strictly accountable for the actions of others.

Since we first posted this story, several readers have written in to side with the Swedish court (apparently the lowest on the legal rung, so there is scope to appeal the decision).

"A moderator should vet all posts BEFORE they reach the forum. It sounds like they were simply monitoring (poorly) a non-moderated forum. The judgement seems quite reasonable. If they claim the rights of a moderator, they have the responsibilities," Paul from England writes.

Ibrahim from Sweden agrees: Further on, they claim they PRE-SCREEN all messages BEFORE posting them in the forum. So chances are that they dug their own hole. Similar rulings has been found in say (the) US too, if you start censoring you are liable. Would a forum ran like kuro5hin or even Slashdot be liable if they existed in Sweden? I don't know, but you would most likely have a stronger case.

Kai R., a "satisfied Swedish citizen," takes up the theme. I know that even a moderated forum is hard to manage/filter, but in this case they wanted to test the laws regarding the status of newspaper publicised on a web site. And the court found that the web edition has the same legal responsibilities that the paper edition has. Not a very revolutionary conclusion. So you can still run a forum on the web, as long as it's not linked to a newspaper/publication which needs a responsible editor.

Responsibility without power

We disagree with this line of argument - as publishers what would you expect? We don't use the blind carrier defence - telcos are not responsible for crimes committed by people using their telephone services - and we accept that publishers have some responsibility for stuff which appears on their forums.

But it strikes us as unreasonable that exactly the same standards should be applied for content posted on bulletin boards as for articles written by employees or freelancers on the payroll. This makes running a bulletin board difficult and potentially expensive, especially for a company with enough money to make it worth launching a libel action.

The moderator has an off-day, there's a technical glitch; maybe the moderator's unpaid and community-minded (Here's an example Overclockers.co.UK, a curious hybrid of computer reseller and thriving community site, with 8,000 regular members and 20 unpaid moderators), and doesn't understand properly the legal pitfalls.

In the UK, comment forum operators are also considered, for defamation purposes, to act as publishers of the material. At least in the UK, the forums can escape legal action, by the simple expedient of removing contentious material when it is brought to their intention (This opens up another bag of worms, as nervous web site operators shut down entire newsgroups, or take down home pages on receipt of a solicitor's letter.)

One way to minimise risk, a la Fucked Company, is to refrain from archiving comments. By imposing a strict and short time limit (say two weeks) on discussions, most legal problems can be avoided. But unmoderated forums are a no-no. The alternative, particularly for non-commercial operations, is to move servers to the US, a country with a robust code of free speech.

The Consumer Project on Technology, a Washington DC group founded by consumer activist Ralph Nader, maintains a tally of online libel actions and a reading list, for those of you who are interested in digging a little deeper in this subject. If you operate an online forum in the UK, get yourself a copy of Essential Law for Journalists; make sure you get a new copy each year, and read it. This book is published by Butterworth and it could be the cheapest 14 quid or so you ever spend. ®

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