Following on last week’s nastiness, Tim O’Reilly has issued a Call for a Blogger's Code of Conduct; good stuff. While the discussion he launches will certainly be useful, I think you can boil down his point #1 to get one simple rule that cleanly addresses the legal and ethical realities and isn’t just for bloggers and that we all should live by: You’re accountable for what appears on your Web site.
Chris Locke trotted out YOYOW (“You own your own words”) presumably in an attempt to avoid damage from the damage around the Kathy Sierra affair, which involved Web sites he’d launched. I don’t buy it. No matter how many disclaimers you print and libertarian platitudes you intone, if a Web site is yours, you are ethically and perhaps legally responsible for what’s there, whoever wrote it. This is reality; deal with it.
Some things fall out of this; if something bad crops up on one of your sites, most people feel that when this is pointed out to you, if you promptly take it down you’re likely to be OK; I’ve even heard lawyers advancing this point of view. On the other hand, if you launch a site that encourages flaming and sliming, and if it gets out of control, and history teaches that such sites always get out of control, and you’ve been around long enough to know this, you might reasonably find yourself held responsible for the damage that gets caused.
I can’t see much to disagree with in the rest of Tim’s proposals, but I think that Accountability For Your Web Site is an iron law; everything else is just best practices that fall out as a consequence.