Today I learnt that bloggers need to be very careful about how they manage comments / discussion on their websites. There was a case 10 years ago that changed how people manage online communities, at least, changed how some people manage them. Amongst new bloggers this case is forgotten it seems. The case was the Godfrey v Demon case, and involved libellous comments left on a forum. After reading about this case I have made the following changes to the site:
- Disabled commenting on some blogs that sometimes attract angry and vocal people
- Deleted any comments that mention other people where they are not relevant to the discussion
- Changed the commenting software so that all comments are moderated before publishing
- Added a commenting disclaimer
Until now I had never considered that people leaving comments could cause any problems. I had them auto-moderated so that any profanities would be blocked, and also if people left multiple links these would also be blocked, as these are generally considered spam. But good language and one or two on topic links are generally considered to be acceptable – at least they were.
Since reading the Wikipedia page on the Godrey v’s Demon case it is a real shock that blog comments can cause such problems. In fact, these comments were in relation to comments left on a Usenet page – blogs were still in their infancy in 2000.
Godfrey v Demon Internet
From Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godfrey_v_Demon_Internet_Service
“Laurence Godfrey, a physics lecturer, learned that someone had posted a message to the Usenet discussion group soc.culture.thai. That message, sent by an unknown source, had been forged to appear to have been sent by Dr. Godfrey. On January 17, 1997, Godfrey contacted Demon Internet, one of the major Internet Service Providers in Great Britain to inform them of the forged message and ask that it be deleted from Demon Internet’s Usenet news server. Demon Internet declined to remove the message, which remained on its servers for ten additional days, at which time it was automatically deleted along with all other old messages. Godfrey sued for libel, citing Demon’s failure to remove the forged message at the time of his initial complaint.”
The case against Demon was that they failed to remove the comments, and the comments remained for 10 days from the date that they were asked to remove them.
So this is a warning to anyone running a blog or a forum – moderate comments, ensure that nothing can be posted that could lead to a legal threat. Many people are advised to have a blog as part of their social media marketing set and to help boost SEO. But few are aware that if a member of the public leaves a comment about another person or business it cause some serious problems.
I know that the Internet is full of such comments these days, but it is important that bloggers understand some law regarding defamation at least.
- Only write the facts in your blogs (I have always followed this rule)
- Moderate all comments before publishing – do not leave to auto publish
- If in doubt, leave it out! i.e. if you are not sure if something should be said, do not publish it
- People say things when angry that they do not mean, but this does not change the law. Do not publish threats or defamatory remarks.
This sort of changes everything, at least, it means that from now on conversion will not flow on this blog, as each comment will be held in a moderation queue until it is reviewed and deemed acceptable for publication.
There is still some debate, the sort that is always decided in court, over who is responsble for a comment.
In the Godfrey versus Demon the ISP (web host) was held responsible. However, there have also been cases, such as with a comment left on Fool.co.uk in 2005, where the actual commenter was held responsible. The web host was asked to trace the IP address, and this led to a prosecution.
The Fool.co.uk Case of Terry Smith v’s Jeremy Benjamin
“A fund manager, Terry Smith, chief executive of city firm Collins Stewart Tullett, won undisclosed damages from Jeremy Benjamin, another fund manager after Benjamin had posted what he now accepts as false allegations on the Motley Fool forum, www.fool.co.uk under a pseudonym. The Motley Fool who were forced to give over Benjamin’s details by a court order, had already taken down Benjamin’s post once Mr. Smith contacted them. However, the damage had already been done.” Source: www.connectedinternet.co.uk/2005/03/25/online-libel-how-to-avoid
Everton Blair from Connected Internet goes on to say:
“Site owners do not have to police their comments, but if someone posts something that is potentially libellous, you are obliged to take it down if someone tells you that they think it is libellous.”
Personally I feel that it is wise to actually “police comments”. If someone spots something that they think is libellous on your blog, then there may be a time lapse between the request to remove and the comment actually being removed. Some ISP’s may remove the comment for you, others may take down the whole site, some may send a message to you directly. If you are on holiday or fail to see the message, this could lead to problems.
It seems that the general rule is that if you act quickly you should be OK. Although as I said a moment ago, better to moderate than wait until someone complains. Unless you sit and read each comment that the community leaves you could be leaving yourself, or you webhost, open of libel action.
A New Disclaimer on Blog Comments
I spoke to Business Link today who have advised that we should have disclaimers on sites where user content can be added (i.e. forum posts, blogs). So I have today added on the comment form:
“Please read the comments disclaimer before posting a comment. Remember that you are responsible for any comments that you make regarding people or businesses.
Webologist is not responsible for the content in comments other than those made by Webologist, or in blogs or other online content that may be linked to.”
I need to roll this out to all websites that allow comments.