The judge at a New York court ruled recently that the identity of a person posting abusive, stalkerish videos and comments on Youtube had to be revealed, so that legal action could be taken against them.
While this case is about harassment and not libel, it’s bound to open up a can of worms around defamation too. I don’t know about you, but when I post something on a site I haven’t always considered the legal repercussions, and I certainly don’t have a libel lawyer looking over my shoulder.
In a landmark case back in 2000, internet service provider Demon paid damages for failing to remove defamatory postings.
Libel law in the UK says that a person or company can be held responsible for the material they publish if they themselves were the author or if they did not take proper precautions to ensure that the material is not libellous. Demon was punished because they failed to remove the posts once they had been alerted to their libellous nature.
This opened up online companies to civil actions and meant that much more stringent vetting and moderation methods were introduced by most sites. Because these are now in place on all major sites, it is the poster who can be held responsible for any illegal activity.
Despite this, a quick scan of any site featuring user-generated content will reveal blatant flouting of libel laws. Pretty much any opinion you could imagine is being expounded by someone.
But, the question is, should these comments, that are on the whole rather flippant, become potential targets for libel action?
Most people who post would not be willing to stand up in court and defend what they have typed in an idle moment. The act of posting a comment on a site is more closely connected to chatting with friends down the pub than publishing a serious article.
It will be interesting to see over the next weeks and months whether the Youtube case will set a precedent and kick up a flurry of similar civil actions. If it does, we’re bound to see the nature of user-generated content change dramatically.