Is a site responsible for what its users have to say? The question has been floating around the Web since its inception, but it seems more relevant each day, as sites like Gawker play up contributors’ anything-goes comments as bona-fide content.
Jeff Bercovici takes on the question on Portfolio. Jeff quotes an attorney who says Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act immunizes Web site owners from libelous statements posted by users; another lawyer thinks it doesn’t.
The truth is we won’t know how much protection the law offers site owners until someone actually tests it via a lawsuit. But it may take a while until someone actually ends up in court: Given that most sites are run by people with few, if any, resources, the threat of legal action will be enough to make them clean up their site/delete an offending post/shut down altogether (see ThinkSecret). One other hitch: The law won’t offer any protection for someone sued outside the U.S.
Nick Denton’s Gawker Media, one of the few Web-only publishing businesses with real money behind it, has so far been good about standing up to legal threats. It’s kept up the Tom Cruise video despite complaints from the deep-pocketed Church Of Scientology. But it’s also pulled back on occasion — for instance, it backed down when Time Warner’s (TWX) Time Inc. complained about a photo Gawker published of Tom Cruise’s kid. It will be interesting to see what happens when/if someone with real money starts complaining about Gawker’s commenters.