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I know that it is in your best interest to enforce specific policies in regards to what is appropriate for your site, but are there any legal issues with not filtering their content?

For example, could one of your users sue you if they feel you "allowed" another user to offend them with a negative statement?

How do you protect yourself as a website owner providing user generated content?

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1 Answer 1

up vote 7 down vote accepted

as usual, IANAL, but this page was written by a Lawyer:

http://www.ericgoldman.org/Articles/websiteliabilityalert.htm

Cooley Godward continues to believe that websites should take steps to avoid knowing their users’ activities and content and, in most cases, reduce indicia of their right and ability to control user behavior and content. Thus, we propose that websites consider the following recommendations:

  • Do Not Actively Monitor the Website

    Active monitoring of the website will give the website actual or putative knowledge of user conduct and content. Thus, active monitoring creates the possibility that a website will be liable for all user-caused harms except those preempted by the Communications Decency Act’s safe harbor.

  • Consider Empowering Independent Contractors to Monitor the Website

    Some websites believe that active monitoring is crucial to their business objectives. In these cases, the websites should have independent contractors do the monitoring. If done properly, the website will not be liable for the independent contractors’ monitoring or knowledge of user content. However, to ensure that the independent contractors will not be deemed agents of the website — in which case this risk management strategy will have failed — the independent contractors must be given the authority necessary to resolve problems they find.

  • Respond to Complaints

    Although in general websites should minimize contact with user-generated content, if a website receives a legitimate complaint about user content (and, in the case of copyright infringement, the notice meets the statutory standards), it usually has a duty to respond promptly (unless the claim is preempted by the safe harbor in the Communications Decency Act).

  • Review and Update the User Agreement

    Provisions enabling websites to blacklist subscribers or edit content based on subjective or arbitrary standards provide strong evidence of the site’s right and ability to control its users and their content. Thus, user agreements should only prohibit users from engaging in conduct that is illegal or tortious, or that interferes with the technological operation of the site. Further, Congress has specified certain language that should be in a user agreement: (1) to be eligible for the DMCA safe harbors, the user agreement must say that repeat infringers will be terminated, and (2) in a separate statute, Congress required "interactive computer services" to notify their users of the availability of filtering tools.

  • Train Employees

    All employees who interact with the website can take legally significant actions that could undermine a risk management strategy. Thus, the website’s risk management strategy should be explained to all employees, and employees responsible for dealing with website problems should be given special training on how to implement the strategy.

  • Register with the Copyright Office

    To be eligible for one of the DMCA safe harbors, notice must be filed with the Copyright Office, with the same information placed on the website. For more information, see http://lcweb.loc.gov/copyright/onlinesp/.

TL;DR version: if you are an official agent of the website and you can be proven to have seen the content and did not act on it ... then potentially you could be liable.

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+1 ... the lawyer appears to be right - you can't actively monitor or moderate your site (otherwise your culpability in unwanted content is implied) ... even if that runs contrary to basic decency (i.e. with illicit content sitting on your forum or wiki until an outraged user reports it). Sad, really. –  danlefree Jan 21 '11 at 1:55
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Does the StackExchange method of community moderators fill that gap of maintaining no liablility and making sure your content gets scrubbed? –  John Jan 21 '11 at 3:22
    
What is the meaning of 'actively monitoring' the site? If I just browse my site (including user content), is that known as monitoring? If I use a platform like Disqus, Disqus allows me to delete offensive comments. Is that active monitoring or moderation? If so, I can't think of a practical situation where one would not actively monitor their site. Because each site owner at-least would reserve the right to delete spam or any comment s/he does not like. –  JP19 Jan 21 '11 at 4:36
    
@jp19 I think the argument is that on YouTube, no human being that works for YouTube looks at every single second of every video that is uploaded. Therefore, it is impossible for them to be liable for this content. –  Jeff Atwood Jan 21 '11 at 4:49
    
I see. So if I use disqus and occasionally filter/delete comments, I guess I am still safe as far as the moderation/monitoring clause is concerned. (I was almost tensed on reading the clause :) –  JP19 Jan 21 '11 at 6:21

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