Feeds

Reader comments bigger legal risk than forums

Mod squad issues dire warning

The Power of One Infographic

Media sites which ask readers to comment on news stories are at greater risk of bearing responsibility for those comments than for comments in online forums or discussion groups, leading web moderators have warned.

Though there are few verdicts to help lawyers and site moderators come up with hard and fast rules, it is generally believed that a web publisher who does not pre-screen user comments is not liable for libellous or otherwise unlawful comments because they had no editorial involvement in them.

Sites which pre-screen all comments are generally deemed to share responsibility with the poster because they have chosen to publish any comments that appear.

But one moderating veteran has said that when unscreened comments appear under news stories the publishers of the site could be liable for them.

"Many lawyers I've spoken to now view the invitation of content – so if you have a comments section at the end of an article on a newspaper site – they view that as inviting comment and therefore you are responsible for it and therefore you probably want to consider pre-moderating all the content that goes there," said Danny Dagan, a moderation consultant who has helped establish online communities for The Sun newspaper, amongst others.

Dominic Sparkes is operations director at Tempero, a moderation firm that spun out of broadcast network ITV. He agreed that the view on news story comments had become common, but said that a recent judgment in the UK by Mr Justice Eady might change that.

That ruling, reported on OUT-LAW.COM, said that comments on bulletin boards and online discussion groups are more like slander than libel because they are more informal.

"I think that does get talked about a lot but I think the Justice Eady case might change that slightly," said Sparkes. "I'm not sure if there's enough case law yet to have a hard and fast rule on that in terms of what is said online."

Mr Justice Eady had written in that ruling: "[Bulletin board posts] are rather like contributions to a casual conversation (the analogy sometimes being drawn with people chatting in a bar) which people simply note before moving on; they are often uninhibited, casual and ill thought out. Those who participate know this and expect a certain amount of repartee or 'give and take'.

"When considered in the context of defamation law, therefore, communications of this kind are much more akin to slanders (this cause of action being nowadays relatively rare) than to the usual, more permanent kind of communications found in libel actions," said the ruling.

Dagen and Sparkes were speaking to technology law podcast OUT-LAW Radio.

John Mackenzie, a litigation partner with Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, disagrees with Dagen and Sparkes.

"It is likely that the courts will focus on whether or not a publisher reviewed content, rather than the form of the publication," he said. "It isn't likely to make any difference whether or not it is an invitation to comment or a bulletin board. They amount to much the same thing. If the comments are not moderated, the publisher is probably safe, at least until notified of any allegedly defamatory posting."

Copyright © 2008, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

Boost IT visibility and business value

More from The Register

next story
Yorkshire cops fail to grasp principle behind BT Fon Wi-Fi network
'Prevent people that are passing by to hook up to your network', pleads plod
UK government officially adopts Open Document Format
Microsoft insurgency fails, earns snarky remark from UK digital services head
Major problems beset UK ISP filth filters: But it's OK, nobody uses them
It's almost as though pr0n was actually rather popular
HP, Microsoft prove it again: Big Business doesn't create jobs
SMEs get lip service - what they need is dinner at the Club
ITC: Seagate and LSI can infringe Realtek patents because Realtek isn't in the US
Land of the (get off scot) free, when it's a foreign owner
MPs wave through Blighty's 'EMERGENCY' surveillance laws
Only 49 politcos voted against DRIP bill
Help yourself to anyone's photos FOR FREE, suggests UK.gov
Copyright law reforms will keep m'learned friends busy
prev story

Whitepapers

Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications
Learn about the various considerations for defending mobile applications - from the application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies.
How modern custom applications can spur business growth
Learn how to create, deploy and manage custom applications without consuming or expanding the need for scarce, expensive IT resources.
Reducing security risks from open source software
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Consolidation: the foundation for IT and business transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.