Libel and Forums

I just posted this on Foot.ie because of ongoing bitching about our evidence requirements for assertions about people and companies. I thought it might interest some of my readers, if I actually have any. :)

We have a rule on Foot.ie that you need to back up your assertions with facts, or not make them. It applies in particular in the Current Affairs forum because the majority of discussion in there is about people or organisations, but also generally across the site in the same circumstances. The rule applies to assertions of fact, not opinions. If you say that you don’t like a person or a company, then there isn’t a problem as long as you don’t get personal or rabid about it, and it really is clear that you’re just stating your opinion. (No, saying “in my opinion he’s a liar” won’t work.) However if you actually make a statement about a person or a company, that they’re liars or cheats, that they did something to you or someone else, that’s not an opinion. You’re asserting a fact with that statement, and you need to back it up with evidence.

There are two main reasons for this. The first is that it’s just plain playing fair. If people were allowed to go around posting baseless assertions about others as a matter of course, there’d be nothing stopping someone making those type of assertions about you. How would you like that? (But that doesn’t apply to you, because you’re telling the truth, right? Well, how do we know that? This is why we need proof.) The second reason is that if you don’t actually have proof, then making that assertion is libel, and libel will get you sued. It may also get us sued, and that’s why we require you to post evidence. It’s not just your problem, it’s ours too, and we need to defend ourselves against your actions.

Why might it gets us sued? Again, there are two reasons. First of all, we give you anonymity, which means someone needs to go through us to get at you. Secondly, to the best of my knowledge there is no legal precedent set on the question of whether the operator of a forum is a publisher. So if some eager-beaver libel lawyer decides that his client has been libelled, they’ll sue us to get to you, which will cost us time and money. They may also try to say that we essentially published what you posted, hold us responsible for it, and sue us for damages.

Now we’re not publishers, and that’s why we disclaim responsibility for posts back to the poster in the terms and conditions when you sign up on Foot.ie. And we’ll usually make every attempt to protect user’s anonymity on Foot.ie, to the stage of requiring a court order for access to data. However we only say we’re not publishers, and a prosecutor could argue against that because, as I said, a precedent hasn’t been set in Ireland with regard to this topic. On the anonymity front, well, if you’re not making any attempt to back up your assertions, why should we protect you?

So there you have it. Yes, we’re trying to protect our own asses with the rule, but we think the reason behind it is pretty reasonable: we don’t want to get sued. But we’re not just protecting our own asses, we’re trying to protect yours too. People tend to forget that.

5 thoughts on “Libel and Forums”

  1. I’m not sure about precedent, but in your case you have a dual problem:
    1 – you are the site publisher
    2 – you host the site

    If they can’t get you on one they can get you on the other, though a lot of the notices I get are usually a lot of “hot air”

  2. It’s not as simple as that Michele, as you know. Yes, I’m the site publisher and I wouldn’t deny that in a court of law, but I’m not a /comment/ publisher in the same way that a newspaper editor is a letter publisher — forum systems are generally “default publish” as against “moderated publish”, it’s a completely different system. Whether I host the site or not is neither here nor there; of course it creates responsibility, but it’s a minor factor as compared to the major issue of publisher status. It’s that status is always in question in Ireland, because of the lack of precedent.

  3. Are you sure there’s no precedent in Irish law yet? I suppose most of the “issues” don’t actually make it into court…

    By the way a “subscribe to comments” on here would really help!

  4. I’m not certain Michele, but I am sure that I’ve been saying it for a long while now, in many forums, and nobody’s corrected me on it yet. More importantly, I’ve never seen reports of it, and it strikes me as the sort of thing there’d be a furore about.

    I know, I’ve been meaning to add subscriptions for a while, I just haven’t gotten around to it. I will. Kinda busy at the moment, as you know. :)

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