The internet is a freedom of speech juggernaut. When in the history of mankind have so many millions of people been able to talk directly with each other so easily? Never. The information people post on sites such as Facebook is known as user-generated content. Every website owner should know there are serious legal issues associated with this type of content.
What is user-generated content? Well, it is any content that a user generates. Consider the Arab Spring and Facebook. Tens of millions of people across the world logged onto Facebook and posted updates regarding developments in the various countries facing revolution. Individual governments tried to turn off access to the web, but failed utterly. The people truly spoke, and the results have been fairly obvious – the communication of information around the world must no longer go through a media filter.
Most feel this is a positive development. I certainly fall into this group. Having said this, site owners can run into situations where they have members posting content that is problematic.
Let’s say you start a political forum. People can join the site and debate various political topics. As you and I both know, politics is a hot button topic, and people tend to say things just a tad over the top when they get fired up. Well, what if one of your members calls another member a child molester or some such thing in the heat of the moment? Assuming this isn’t true, the posting party can be sued by the non-child molester for slander and libel. The more pertinent question for you, the site owner, is can the site be sued?
Generally speaking, a site is not liable for user-generated content. Sites like Yelp, Facebook and Google+ would be unable to function if this were the case. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides the protection and reads in part:
“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.”
If a site is not a publisher, then claims such ranging from defamation to slander cannot be asserted against it.
There are almost always going to be exceptions when talking about a law – any law. This one is no different. The three generally recognized exceptions to immunity from liability for user-generated content include posts infringing on intellectual property rights, criminal offenses and posts where the site participates in or makes the inflammatory post. Most intellectual property disputes involve copyright infringement claims, which a site can protect itself from using the safe harbor provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
User-generated content is undoubtedly the biggest source of legal complaints on the web these days. The blunt truth is people upload content without giving much thought to the consequences of doing so. As a site owner, you need to be on top of this issue and ready to deal with the problems that can arise when it happens.
Richard A. Chapo, Esq.