Who’s Responsible for Online Comments?

Screenshot 2013-10-12 12.11.07There was a rather important finding in the EU Court of Human Rights yesterday that caught my eye. In a precedent setting finding, the court found the owners of Delfi, an Estonian news-site provider, were liable for comments posted to the site by outraged customers of Leedo – an Estonian ferry provider in the process of reducing the routes it provided to Estonian islands. The vituperative comments were directed at the ferry service provider, by way of the news providers website and were considered offensive by the court.
The nature of libel via the Internet remains a contentious area and this finding further increases the responsibility on providers to censor their feeds – raising issues around EU freedom of expression rights.
The original articles appeared throughout Europe in 2006.
You’ll find fuller coverage widely, but here is a bit of background.
I was particularly struck/amused by a rapid fire comment from one commenter who pointed out that the latest get rich (relatively) quick scheme would now appear to be is to insult yourself anonymously on a public website and then sue the site for defamation.

16 thoughts on “Who’s Responsible for Online Comments?”

  1. In my opinion the website Delfi is not liable for the comments on their site. Even if these websites (or any social media website, blog site etc) implement a very high censor system for their feeds, people will always find the way to dress up their comments and get the same result they pursued… there are many ways to say “I don’t like you”.

    I did get a bit of a giggle when I read your comment on “the latest get rich (relatively) quick scheme”.

    There are probably two questions to be asked on this. First question: are social media sties, blog sites, etc responsible for the comments posted on their sites since it would appear that they’re incapable of controlling them to a significant extent. So if we all agree that the commentary is impossible to control and therefore the sites can not be held responsible… the second question is: do we want these sites which allow such freedom of expression?

    If we want such freedom of expression and cheap and easy access to news sites and social media sites, it would appear that there is a social price to be paid. If we do not want such cheap and easy access perhaps we should go back to buying newspapers and writing letters.

    1. In many people’s opinions, the carrier is not responsible for the message. Going back to the early telephony days, the common carrier policy emerged – basically the operator did not listen to the content of the call and therefore didn’t police what was being said. In more recent times there has been a constant negotiation between the carrier and the user. This case is significant as it challenges this policy. The big question raised is can a carrier police its usage. Most carriers simply don’t want to be held liable or attempt to do so. The court in this case is saying both yes you can and should police use. If there is a clear policy to be upheld then policing may be appropriate at the appropriate level. This is probably a great exploration (quite probably already in your Law module).
      The courts set the standards – but who enforces?

  2. Seems to be back to the old case of cyberbullying, I think on one hand it’s a very positive sign to see website be held accountable for the content posted to their site. Most sites require users to login before they can comment, and there is usually a disclaimer saying that offensive comments will be removed. I think that there needs to be some clearly defined legislation about what is and is not acceptable regarding social computing. Obviously threatening and intimidating people online should not be allowed, just as it wouldn’t in a face to face situation. The website owners also need to be responsilbe just as if these altrications were happening in a physical premises, they have some duty of care to their patrons, to keep the environment safe. By allowing users to leave anonymous comments they are showing a complete disregard for their customers safety, similar to the ‘askfm’ situation.

  3. For me forums need site administrators, and they must have
    the right to delete inappropriate comments. Anonymous posting should not be
    allowed. I would even allow these forums to keep track of the IP address from
    which people post and to hand them over to the authorities should they be
    required.

  4. I agree with you kevin. There’s far too many abusive and overtly racist comments on lots of forums. The Journal.ie is particularly bad for non-filtered comments. I can see someone taking a case againt them some day to.
    I think that the person who sits down to write the rubbish or hate vitriol is ultimately responsible for what they say. Would they say such stuff if faced by the person they are attacking or victimising? I don’t think so.

    The person who writes the comment if blocked by one forum could just as easily write it on another open forum, but that doesn’t mean that websites such as thejournal.ie don’t have a social responsibility.

  5. Most forums these days come with disclaimers explicitly stating they
    aren’t responsible for the comments contained therein. If we are to
    prosecute the website for comments posted on it, would there not be
    governance to extend that to phone networks, where if someone calls me
    up to insult me (you know who you are!!), I can then blame their phone
    network for providing the means of which to do so. I see the website as
    providing a service, while common sense dictates they should try to
    mitigate the posting of nonsensical abusive comments they are also
    maintaining a forum for free speech so where does one limit the powers
    of censorship?

    As we learned in our wonderfully informative Law and IT lecture,
    just because a product can be used unethically or illegally, doesn’t
    place the responsibility of use on the product. In much the same way
    with the website, just because they provide a service, the onus isn’t on
    them to ensure their users act in an ethical fashion.

  6. Bobby, who reads disclaimers? A show of hands in the class

    will show 15% or less I would say. Free speech should not give you the right to

    abuse someone and to post derogatory comments. While we as adults may be able
    to let it go

    over our heads, some cannot. There have been many documented cases of teenagers

    taking their own lives because of what was posted on a forum. So for me the
    site admin deletes the posts or quarantines it till a 2nd admin has the
    chance to read it.

    On your abusive phone calls you can have the number blocked

  7. I do think that moderated, identified posting of comments should be mandatory for websites that use that type of feedback capability, but who ultimately defines the standards and criteria that constitute whether a comment is published or withheld/reported. More seriously, can internet governance provide a legislative solution that avoids all-out Nanny State censorship while sanctioning the right to freedom of expression?

    Google unveils new technology to protect free speech on the web:
    http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/google-unveils-new-technology-to-protect-free-speech-on-the-web-8896661.html

    Who runs the Internet?:
    http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Who-Runs-the-Internet-graphic.png

  8. It was a fair ruling, and Delhi were in my view legally responsible for the defamatory comments made against Leedo and its owners. I agree with Stephanie in saying if they do not put in place the relevant safe guards to protect its users from the then disgruntled anonymous venting nonsensical comments on ungoverned forums they should be held liable.

    There are as Leidy said different ways that you can say “ I don’t like you” but in this case I have a feeling that it was a little less “dressed up”, and probably quite vulgar as otherwise normal stated comments and remakes wouldn’t get the same sort of coverage.

    There is no excuse for such a large news corporation to openly contribute to the darker side of social networking at least for the fear of fine of €320.00 (is that a typo?) which I’m sure will detour any prospect of getting rich quick.

  9. I agree with Gavin that moderated, identified posting of comments should be mandatory for
    websites that use comments and feedback. You should be willing to stand behind what you say. The area between freedom of expression and censorship seems ripe for litigation. Netiquette should be a compulsory introduction to internet usage for all children. I suspect just as with etiquette in real life, you will come across those who are totally oblivious to the concept or think it is open to broad interpretation. At the end of the day, do we want rules and regulations to stand in the way of lively discussion and exchange of information?

  10. To be completely honest I am for freedom of speech. We should be able to say what we want to but we shouldn’t be able to do it anonymously or cowardly. I therefore think the onus is on the website to forbid anonymous posts so that libellous comments can be tracked to an identity or at least to a computer. In this case the website owners have satisfied what I think is reasonable enough to avoid prosecution directly.

  11. What in these days is anonymous? Can we really write something bad and get away with it especially on public sites? I do agree that we should be able say whatever we think, believe and have opinion on but really this should not be allowed always… As mentioned some sites should be administrated and before publishing anything it should be reviewed. In todays technology progress I don`t think we will be able to control anything in a while.

  12. I think a lot of websites have wised up to this problem. After reading
    an article I’ll browse the comments and a few times I have noticed that some
    comments have been removed due to inappropriate content.

  13. Seems like everyone is in agreement that anonymous posting of comments should become a thing of the past. I think there is still a place for anonymity on the web but it must be diligently moderated. I think part of the problem is that a lot of people are still relatively ignorant of the risks and consequences of unacceptable behaviour online. The “digital native” generation seem to be none the wiser in this regard. They might be using iPads since they were toddlers but they still have to learn lessons the hard way when it comes to understanding how to represent themselves online.

  14. To answer the question posed by the blog, the commenters only should be liable for their comments and not the website. However, the website should monitor comments and delete those that use an offensive language. As many other suggested in their responses, “anonymous posting should become a thing of the past” (to quote Martin!). I am all for freedom of speech but I am even more for respecting people to be honest. The area of online comments and even users profiles on public sites is quite at an early stage so it will be a while before it shapes it self into something better regulated. By the way, I found that the comment you quote at the end of your post, Shawn, makes a very valid point!

  15. The other night I spent ages reading through a tweet retweeted from somewhere else about anonymous abuse on the internet and the effect it has on women (yes – it seems like this is a gender focused link here but I link to it as symptomatic of our need to develop an ‘online humanity’ to match the ‘real’ world) – the tweet was a link to this – http://www.psmag.com/navigation/health-and-behavior/women-arent-welcome-internet-72170/
    So – there’s 2 issues here – firstly, social media has matured but the societal norms and rules that it should be developing in have not (we have rules in real life – we should have a mirroring in our digital lives). Secondly, we have no strong legislation at the moment around behaviour on the net, as much as jurisdiction = world. And I’m not sure that can we can ever satisfactorily solve that.
    There is an increasing leaning on site owners to become their own police force as in the topic posted above – but if you’re in a shop and someone slaps you are the shop-owners liable for the assault? You can have moderators and moderate comments to an extent if they are out-of-the-park inappropriate – but what if someone sees a slight for reasons of culture/race/religion that someone else wouldn’t; is the site also liable for that? It could get crazy and it might lead to the end of forums and commenting on some sites afraid of litigation – which would be a blow for free speech. I’m not sure where this debate will go next.

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