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How to make sure your website comments don’t get you sued

By Will Stevens - October 11, 2013

If you don’t moderate comments on your blog or website you could be held legally responsible for any offensive posts your users make, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled.

The case involved an Estonian news site, Delfi, and a story it had run about changes to a ferry route, a decision which had caused a large degree of controversy in the country. The piece attracted a significant number of comments, some of them containing offensive and threatening language about the ferry operator.

Delfi was then sued by the operator and an Estonian court ruled in favour of the transport company, ordering the news site to pay around €320 in damages. Delfi appealed, but in today’s ruling the ECHR decided that the sanction was not in breach of the site’s right to freedom of expression.

The court reached this decision because: “The comments were highly offensive; the portal failed to prevent them from becoming public, profited from their existence, but allowed their authors to remain anonymous; and, the fine imposed by the Estonian courts was not excessive.”

Here’s what the ruling means for you:

Disclaimers aren’t enough

Delfi’s webpage stated that commenters were liable for the content they wrote on the website, but the court decided that as many of them were anonymous it was reasonable to hold the news site responsible for the actions of people posting on its articles.

You need to remove offensive comments quickly

People could report offensive comments on Delfi’s site, but the court ruled that it had not acted quickly enough to remove content after it had been flagged.

Automatic word filtering may not be enough

Delfi also used automatic word filtering in an attempt to prevent offensive comments from being posted on its site, again the court ruled that the system that was in place was inadequate.

Here’s what you should do:

In light of this ruling, website owners should think about implementing a “safety first” approach to online comments. That means doing the following:

Pre-moderating all comments

If one offensive or threatening comment slips through on to you site, that may be enough to get you sued. As such, pre-moderating all comments on your site is a good idea. If you’re not able to do this because of the amount of time it would take, you may wish to ban comments all together.

Banning anonymous comments

At the very least, you should consider banning anonymous comments as the ruling suggests that doing so may help your defence should you face legal action. You may wish to implement a comment system based on Facebook, Twitter or Google+ to try and make sure people are using their real names. Even then, there is no guarantee people are using their true identities.

Understanding the law in your area

Taking the time to understand what laws you need to comply with when approving comments will reduce the chances of being sued. If you’re based in the UK, McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists provides excellent coverage of the regulations that apply to media outlets.

How will you be handling the news that you could be held responsible for comments on your website? Let us know in the comment section below. And please, keep it legal!