Legal issues to do with user-generated content

Andy Chatfield writes:

In the same way that ISPs play no part in the authorship of journalism on the websites they host, editors cannot anticipate what readers will publish in the ‘comment’ fields widely available on their web pages.

Swift and wide-ranging interaction with readers is one of the fundamental benefits of publishing on the web, fuelling the free flow of information and comment. Yet illegal content of all kinds is an ever-present danger, whether you are a solo blogger who has enabled the comment facility, or a big company hosting interactive features like forums or chatrooms.

Long gone are the days when readers’ views were only represented on the fixed letters pages of a newspaper, after careful editing by trained journalists. Few have the resources to monitor such live UGC, but all need some kind of moderation process.

An important case in the area of user-generated content (Karim v Newsquest Media Group [2009] EWHC 3205 (QB)) established that publishers could rely on Regulation 19 of the E-Commerce Regulations, a piece of European legislation.

An article entitled ‘Crooked solicitors spent client money on a Rolex, loose women and drink’ was published on websites run by Newsquest, a UK regional news publisher. The High Court ruled that the article itself, about a lawyer being struck off, was not defamatory because it was a fair and accurate report of a tribunal and covered by absolute privilege. Newsquest escaped liability for defamatory comments posted beneath the story thanks to the directive.

To enjoy this protection, it is vital that the organization controlling a site ‘upon obtaining such knowledge or awareness [of serious illegal- ity], acts expeditiously to remove or to disable access to the information’. As we discuss in Chapter 9, most news companies use their readers as moderators of UGC on their sites, providing a clear way for alerts to be sent in, and a procedure for acting on them swiftly if necessary.

Football fans’ forums seem to have provided particular challenges in this regard.

An independent forum for Sheffield Wednesday fans, owlstalk.co.uk, hit the headlines in 2007 when the club sued the site’s owner for allowing some fans to pursue an often libelous ‘sustained campaign of vilification’ against the club chairman. The suit was later dropped, but the case was also significant for the attempt by the club to gain a so-called ‘Norwich Pharmacal’ order.