Bloggers, commenters and the law

US blogger, Aaron Wall, is being sued for what some commenters said on his site about a internet advertising company. It’s even made the Wall Street Journal. He seems determined to fight it, and he’s currently collecting donations for a legal fighting fund – corporate law can be extremely complex and extremely expensive. Amy Gahran has some interesting things to say on the matter. Importantly, she flags up the SLAPP suit phenomenon: ie, a frivolous action intended to close down comment and legitmate freedom of speech.

Even so, she was moved enough by the Wall situation to re-formulate her own commenting policy:

AGREEMENT: By sumitting this comment, you grant Amy Gahran permission to quote or republish this comment without restriction, notification, or compensation. Also, you acknowledge that you alone are fully responsible for (and bear full legal liability for) the content of this comment – including inaccuracies or potentially libelous statements. You certify that in this comment you have disclosed no proprietary or confidential information. This agreement applies even if you choose to post anonymously or supply false or incomplete identification.

COMMENTS ARE MODERATED! Your comment will not appear immediately on this site. Rather, it will appear on Contentious only after it’s approved, which could take up to one day. Contentious moderates comments to filter out spam and off-topic, offensive, uncivil, or otherwise inappropriate posts. Contentious does not fact-check, spell-check, or otherwise verify or correct comments.

Dave Taylor’s also been giving comment policy serious thought, mostly for the business sector for some time. He argues that where there is a serious business at the centre of the blog, the comment zones must be tightly (though not rigidly) controlled.

Nevertheless it’s important not to panic, just yet. It’s certainly not time to abandon the very thing that makes the web a compelling read: ie the multiple and multiplying conversations the burgeoning blogosphere gives rise to.

Leading US blog thinker Jeff Jarvis in an open letter to Michael Dell implores the computer entrepreneur to drive improvement in his company’s customer service performance by blogging and getting interactive (hat-tip Adriana) not simply with customers, but the (blogging) friends of customers.

Having the larger world listen to what the little guy says is a powerful function of the blogosphere. And for that bigger world (political, corporate, or journalistic), crucial insights can unfold from online conversation that otherwise would have gone unheeded or unnoticed.

But it pays to remember that, like all forms of freedom of speech, ultimately its parameters will be circumscribed by law.

NB: Our thanks to Ma Bear for flagging up the case (and a wheen o links).

  • Ciaran

    Nothing more depressing than corporations and people trying to shut debate down through these lawsuits (although some comments on various blogs could hardly be construed as debate).

    Still, I find it hard to believe that Grahan’s commenting policy would actually render her immune from lawsuits (should they prove successful and/or effective). I have a feeling that telling someone that they assume responsibility for their comment (and even that someone accepting the responsibility) has no bearing on one’s legal exposure if the libel takes place (assuming that blog hosts are deemed liable).

    I might be wrong on that though.

  • maca

    According to the Wall Street Journal “Courts generally have held that the operators of computer message boards and mailing lists cannot be held liable for statements posted by other people”. Blogs should be seen in the same light as there is very little difference between a message board/forum and a blog.
    In the case of Aaron Wall he also said some negative comments about Traffic-Power, who could be seen to be a competitor of his. So he kinda walked into this.

  • fmk

    re: “Courts generally have held that the operators of computer message boards and mailing lists cannot be held liable for statements posted by other people”.

    board owners and isps *have* been held responsible for content in cases where a potential problem has been highlighted to them and they have done nothing to rectifty the situation.

    re the blogger passing responsibility back to the commentor. the problem he has is that he is then moderating the post, which is assuming some degree of responsibility for the comment.

    generally, i don’t think this is a major issue. teh case law more or less already exists, and no new ground is likely to be broken by this case.

    obviously, if i posted something libelous here, it’d be delted pdq. bloggers *must*, in all fairness, accept *some* responsibility for comments on their blogs. some blog services will remind you that “you are responsible for all the posts and all the comments posted on your blog.”