Are there legal repercussions to inconsistent content censorship?
July 18, 2008 12:13 AM   Subscribe

What are the legal repercussions for censoring user-generated content (for example, product reviews)? For some reason I thought that by taking the time to examine some user content, organizations have implicitly agreed to examine all user content. But I'll be damned if I can find anything to support that view (or, alternately, point out why it's wrong, wrong, wrong...) Any thought? Links to scholarly-type articles appreciated.
posted by DoubtingThomas to Law & Government (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What's the forum for this content?

Also, what is the nature of this content?

Without some kind of contract or agreement, there are no legal repercussions for deleting or censoring product reviews.

It's probably not even defamation since product reviews tend to be opinions, not factual statements.

More context would help.
posted by abdulf at 12:52 AM on July 18, 2008

Are you sure you aren't confusing copyright with libel, specifically the DMCA's Safe Harbour clauses that protect ISPs and content providers from being sued over copyright infringement assuming they have no knowledge of it?
posted by HaloMan at 1:57 AM on July 18, 2008

I believe the term you're looking for is Common Carrier status. This is usually used in reference to highways and byways for transport of goods, but recently "transport" has been updated to include telecommunications and the internet (with a lot of disagreement). From the wiki:
An important legal requirement for common carrier as public provider is that it cannot discriminate, that is refuse the service unless there is some compelling reason (e.g post doesn't allow to send cash).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:10 AM on July 18, 2008

I could be mistaken, but I thought the same type of safe harbour protection applies to a site for libelous content as well if they only act on reported complaints and don't go out looking for it themselves. Damned if I can find it, but that seemed to be the tipping point in a case I read about a while back. The site was fine until they started practicing "content control". At that point, they were deemed to be taking an editorial role and became responsible for all content.
posted by barc0001 at 2:11 AM on July 18, 2008

DoubtingThomas is referring to the effects of Section 230 of the CDA, which, as wikipedia says, "provides immunity from liability for providers and users of an 'interactive computer service' who publish information provided by others." This is a departure from standard defamation law, where a newspaper can be responsible for whatever it publishes, even if it did not provide the information itself (e.g. letters to the editor).

The twist comes in because if the provider exercises a sufficient level of control over user-submitted content, some courts have found that this rises to the level of "providing" the information itself, sacrificing the immunity. Such findings have been relatively rare, but they have happened. The wiki link above has a number of good citations to look through, and you'll want to pay extra attention to the section on rejected immunity claims.

To get started on some free-access scholarly discussion, try searching here for "section 230."
posted by Partial Law at 5:17 AM on July 18, 2008

Oh, actually the EFF's Section 230 Blogger's FAQ [Google cache if the site's still down] may be a better place to start if you want to understand the nuances of the law as it has been applied, especially the section titled "Do I lose Section 230 immunity if I edit the content?"
posted by Partial Law at 5:26 AM on July 18, 2008

Let's be clear here. There is no "implicit agreement." The owners of a site may censor as they wish. However, as pointed out above, in the very narrow and unlikely circumstance that a person posts defamatory materials on someone else's site, if the owners engage in a high level of editing of user content, if they are sued a court may not apply the special immunity granted by the law cited above.

So the answer to you question is no.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:54 AM on July 18, 2008

You may be thinking of the debate on Slashdot over posts relating to Scientology, who used the DMCA to force the removal of an anonymous comment. The post I linked to doesn't mention the can of worms issue but I recall it was brought up at the time.
posted by djb at 7:11 AM on July 18, 2008

Check out Stratton Oakmont, Inc. v. Prodigy, which supports what you're saying. The now-defunct online provider Prodigy thought it was not liable for libelous claims made about a company on one of its bulletin boards, but because Prodigy had taken steps to censor other (even unrelated) bulletin boards, it was found to be liable. Keep in mind though that this judgment came down in 1995.

Here's a good lay-summary of it Reason Magazine.
posted by MaddyRex at 9:29 AM on July 18, 2008

Woot. I love AskMeFi, and each and every one of you, too. It was the common carrier / Section 230 of the CDA that I was thinking of. Many thanks.
posted by DoubtingThomas at 1:21 PM on July 18, 2008

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