Legal precautions for running a website with user-submitted content
April 14, 2016 7:25 PM   Subscribe

So, you create a small website, say a Wordpress/Wordpress-style community blog, and give some friends/aquaintances the right to post (images, text, links). User Joe Jackass decides to post something illegal. What are the legal ramifications for you?

What if only registered users can see the site? What if you take the offending content down ASAP and ban the user? What if you pre-screen the content but it slips by you?

Mainly: does anyone have experience with this directly? How does one go about learning/what are the best resources to learn about covering one's own ass legally when running a website with user-submitted content? EULAs, privacy policies, necessary for a small website, good enough? Is a lawyer necessary?

posted by hypercomplexsimplicity to Law & Government (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

IAAL, IANYL, TINLA (at all -- this is more "what I would do" than "what I would advise a paying client to do," because I wouldn't be running a business). Unless you're encouraging people to post something illegal, you should be protected against copyright infringement by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). Technically you have to register with the copyright office, but if this is really a small operation limited to people you know, personally I wouldn't. But yeah, if you take the offending content down ASAP you're probably fine. The key is consistency -- either screen nothing, or screen everything, but either way publicize (in a FAQ or terms of use) how people can object and promptly respond to their objections. If you screen everything and something slips by you, NBD as long as it's reasonable.

If Joe Jackass posts something that does not infringe copyright but is illegal in some other way (let's say it's something really terrible like child porn), it's possible that your server could be seized because it would contain evidence/illegal materials. This seems very unlikely, though, as long as you're not giving people unfettered access to use the server in any way they want.

Here's what I would do as a layperson without legal help:

1. Find similar websites and look at their terms and conditions. Copy one that looks good to you, adapt it, and post it on your site. Pretty much every website that accepts user content has stuff in their terms like "You agree not to do anything illegal, harass anyone, distribute malware, impersonate anyone, etc." Make sure you have that. Also, a statement about how users are solely liable for what they post. These terms may say something about how the user will indemnify you for any problems relating to content that they post -- this means that if you get sued, the user is responsible for covering your costs. The terms should also have an email address where people can contact you if they see something wrong or content that's not supposed to be there.

2. Give a little thought to what you will do if Joe Jackass strikes (you're already doing this!) and write up a one-page policy that you plan to follow. It should contain:
- User education - what are you saying to users about their content, and how are you saying it?
- Screening - will you do any? If so, how?
- Responding to objections - what's your policy? Under what circumstances will you take down content?
You don't necessarily have to publish this, but it's good to have.

Resources: Google "liability for website content" and you'll find lots of good stuff -- the first link (Eric Goldman) is good if you really want to understand legal stuff, and here's a Nolo resource about websites in general.
posted by chickenmagazine at 7:57 PM on April 14, 2016 [7 favorites]

This is going to vary by jurisdiction - can you tell us roughly where you are? What counts as illegal, as well as the possible consequences for posting it and what's considered "good enough" to shield you from them, will be very different in e.g. the US vs the UK, and perhaps even within a country.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 10:02 PM on April 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

If someone posts something libelous, you might have to comply with a court order to reveal what you know about the person. Having a written logging policy (what you log, how long you store it for) can help show that you're not withholding information.
posted by Candleman at 5:14 AM on April 15, 2016

(images, text, links)

In practical terms, i.e. those for run-of-the-mill websites (and there are zillions that allow comments, etc.), there is no such thing as an illegal link or illegal text. The bare minimum of best practices is to have a link somewhere saying "DMCA Contact" that allows a person to communicate to a working email address, optionally listing an address of service.

Here is the DMCA reporting page for Hostgator, who is a commodity webhost who will sell accounts to anybody. You really don't have to do much. IANAL, but I do follow DMCA issues fairly closely.

All of this is in terms of hosting within the US, which I assume you're doing by your use of "Joe Jackass," which sounds more USian to me than anywhere else.
posted by rhizome at 1:11 PM on April 15, 2016

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