Freedom of Speech for Web Publishers and Citizen Journalists

Liability For User-Generated Content

User generated content is great for web publishers, but web publishers should be concerned about the risk of being sued for hosting offensive or illegal user-generated content. So how can you protect your site?

User-generated content can be a huge benefit for an online publisher.

By giving users the ability to interact with your website, you increase the site's value to individual users. And as the value of your site increases, so does its profit-earning potential.

But user-generated content also has a downside. When you let users post comments, generate dialogs, or interact with each other through your site, you sacrifice control of your site's content. You can't monitor your site 24/7, so it's possible for inappropriate or illegal content to linger on the site for hours or even days. In many cases, publishers aren't even aware that offensive content is out there until other users notify them of its existence.

That's a problem because illegal content can have significant legal repercussions. If a user comment or post violates the rights of other users, you and your company will be likely targets for a lawsuit. But do web publishers have actual legal liability for user-generated content?

Legal Overview

Generally, web publishers are not held legally liable for comments and content posted by users, provided they have taken appropriate and necessary steps to inoculate themselves from legal exposure. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 gives immunity to publishers and users of an "interactive computer service" from content that has been generated by other users. To qualify for immunity, the site must be interactive and the harmful content cannot have been created by the publisher.

Tips for Protecting Your Site

  • Non-Participation. Under no circumstances should you in any way alter or modify offensive posts to your site. You can remove them, but if you edit them yourself, the courts can interpret your action as participation in the creation of the offensive content.
  • Terms of Use. Your site's Terms of Use must explicitly state that offensive behavior will not be tolerated and that users will be held personally responsible for the content they create. Your Terms of Use should also indemnify you and your site from the posting of offensive material.
  • User Alerts. Make it easy for users to alert you when offensive or illegal content has been posted to your site. In most cases, users will not hold you responsible for the bad behavior of others, provided they have the ability to contact the site administrator and resolve the issue.
  • Response Time. As the owner of the site, you reserve the right to remove offensive material. When a user lodges a complaint, address it expeditiously - preferably within a matter of minutes or hours.

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