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.
Comment feed for ongoing:
From: Keith Gaughan (Apr 02 2007, at 04:40)
There's one other rule: don't be an ass.
From: Michael MacLeod (Apr 02 2007, at 05:47)
So, I'd like to talk about the Church of Scientology. You see, they're a silly cult, some of the reasons why have been documented at http://xenu.net. The e-meter they use as a cornerstone of their religion is nothing but a glorified voltmeter. Have a little extra salt or iron in your blood? Up goes your thetan level! Welcome to the next level!
While I doubt this post will get their attention, if it does you may wish to rethink some of your points here. The Church of Scientology is very active in serving various forms of legal harassment to websites that contain anything critical of Scientology. They've gone after Google and Slashdot, I highly doubt your website would be any more than a grease spot on the all-weather tires of their legal machine.
While the situation with Kathy is despicable, lets not lose sight of the forest for the trees. There are reasons why comments posted to websites are owned by the persons posting each comment, rather than the website owner. While it may behoove the owner to remove comments that certainly cross ethical barriers, I don't think that legal liability for such things as slander, libel, copyright infringement, etc, should necessarily fall on the website owner. As far as I'm concerned, that's inviting a whole lot of chilling effects into the room and wondering why the conversation just went cold.
From: Robert 'Groby' Blum (Apr 02 2007, at 05:57)
It's a noble idea, but a slippery slope. I am all for bloggers *assuming* responsibility. (See my comments on the Kathy Sierra thing)
I am not sure if *assigning* responsibility is the right thing to do, though. It works quite well for small sites, but it doesn't scale up beyond the "take down on notice" part. Sites like Fark or Slashdot, for example, won't be able to actively police their users - and should not be required to.
It's a slippery slope, and all that...
My current stance is that if you want to be part of a communication, you have to actually "own your words" and stand by them - no anonymity. (How you can believe in "you own your words" and then allow anonymous comments is completely beyond me....)
If your site *does* allow anonymous comments, you *must* react to user complaints. I'm not sure you should be required to take down questionable content - but you should be required to say "I've seen this, and I want to let this stand on my site".
From: Christian Mogensen (Apr 02 2007, at 07:14)
"when (something bad) is pointed out to you, if you promptly take it down you’re likely to be OK"
This is pretty much the law in Norway, and also the principle behind the DMCA safe harbor provision. In Norway the concept of "editorial control" (an extension of newspaper-like editorial responsibility) applies. If you own/control the website, you need to monitor what happens on it. If you don't filter out illegal stuff on an ongoing basis, then you are liable for the consequences.
Of course, this only applies to web sites hosted in Norway, or owned by norwegian entities.
From: John Cowan (Apr 02 2007, at 08:25)
Groby, the problem with what you say about anonymous comments is that from the point of view of assigning rather than accepting responsibility, all comments are anonymous. I mean, the author of these words *claims* to be John Cowan, and a particular John Cowan at that, one who Tim knows personally; but how does Tim know if this claim is truthful? What should he do, demand my (non-)driver's license number before approving the post?
You're certainly right that the YOYOW principle doesn't scale to large social websites. On the other hand, those sites don't screen postings, as Tim does. It seems to me that the point here is that you can't have it both ways: either you claim to be analogous to an ISP (which is analogous to a common carrier), do no prior review of contributions, and only implement takedown notices; or else you claim and keep full control and bear full responsibility.
From: Gazzer (Apr 02 2007, at 10:12)
I think the "you're accountable" approach is fundamentally unworkable. The first issue is that many comments are in a grey area of acceptability, and if we expect the owner's of say, YouTube to police all the comments - probably about a billion of them - then all comments with a slight flag will simply get deleted. No doubt there will be political repercussions too as we decide what kind of comments are acceptable or not. Wikipedia owners will have to trawl through the histories deleting all possible comments that cross this hypothetical unknownable boundary. The main result will be a few idiots will end up affecting the freedom of speech of everyone else. I run a small website that has tens of thousands of comments. If I had to read all of those comments and judge two things would happen: all my members would hate me and my wife would run off with the milkman.
From: Rafe (Apr 02 2007, at 21:56)
The YOYOW reference was completely wrong anyway. I blogged about it at: