Internet “gripe” sites have become very popular over the last three or four years, and they have taken many different forms. Some of these sites have offered students an opportunity to share random thoughts. Others have turned into a bashing forum for people to light into other people. Others still allow consumers to gripe about different businesses. Though it turns out these sites are completely legal, there are some reasons to take pause if you are posting on them. The law provides certain protections for the owners of these sites, but those protections are not ironclad. This is especially true in the changing world where internet laws are under siege.
Laws designed to shield site owners
One of the nice things about today’s internet law is that site owners are relatively insulated from litigation. They have a “shield”, so to speak, since the law does not allow for prosecution on the basis of simply providing a forum. The way these sites get away with this is relatively simple. They just put out the bulletin board and allow people to post thoughts on it. This puts the responsibility on the individuals doing the posting, since the law does not impute liability onto the site owner in most circumstances. Though many have tried, it is very difficult to get to a site owner based upon these principles.
Coming after site posters
Just because the site is insulated does not mean that individual posters are free to post what they want. Even anonymous posters can be held liable for their words if those words are defamatory to other people. In many instances, subpoenas have been served on the site, requiring the site owners to give up IP addresses on users. This can turn ugly for people who have been posting false statements, as they can be sued for libel as a result of their words.
Site owners and encouraging misconduct
Gripe sites have run into some trouble on the basis of “encouraging” certain kinds of postings. Though they are not civilly liable for defamation on the face, these individual site owners can be implicated if they encourage certain postings. This is where the law gets a bit murky, so site owners have to be very careful in how they craft their sites. Though they are not required to take down postings and they are not generally responsible for all defamation that takes place there, a site owner can have some liability if he is not careful.
The changing nature of internet law
Another thing to note is that the internet law is changing. The US Supreme Court and other federal courts are still relatively new to the proceedings and they are still learning how to apply the law. There is always a chance that the law could shift with judicial interpretation changing in time. This is something that site owners and internet posters alike must be aware of if they plan to test the difficult waters of internet gripe and borderline defamation.