Should internet companies be held liable for dodgy content?

internetIf someone posts content on your website that is defamatory, constitutes hate speech, disseminates child pornography or invades someone’s privacy, are you liable? Most major developing countries do not think so, but this could change, warn researchers.

And as internet use expands around the globe, so does the potential liability for the owners of websites, search engines, social media sites and other online platforms, who are subject to laws in each country where their websites and services are accessible.

“As sites such as Instagram and Snapchat have exploded in the number of photos and videos and other information posted, this problem has exponentially increased,” said Sean O’Connor from University of Washington.

“Each of those platforms has this potential liability hanging out there, with the firehose of content that’s being posted every day,” O’Connor noted in a university statement.

To advance understanding of the issue, University of Washington’s Center for Advanced Study and Research on Innovation Policy (CASRIP) recently commissioned and released a series of reports on the liability facing these kinds of online service providers as “internet intermediaries,” or entities that facilitate online use.

Many of these intermediaries provide platforms where content can be posted by users — the most well-known include Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram.

But the problem also affects search engines, blogs, network operators and even comments sections on websites and blogs.

The 16 reports focus on laws concerning hate speech, privacy, child protection and defamation in five countries – India, China, Brazil, Russia, and Thailand.

The five countries generally do not hold internet intermediaries liable for unlawful content posted by users unless they knew about the content and failed to remove it, Anna Bakhmetyeva, CASRIP’s Programme Manager, said.

Most countries usually grant online service providers immunity, referred to as “safe harbour,” provided they comply with certain rules and remove problematic content quickly.

The reports cite a case in Brazil which concluded that holding an online provider liable “would be the same as holding the post offices liable for written crimes on letters, which would be unreasonable.”

At the same time, Bakhmetyeva said, some websites have become known havens for criminal or offensive material.

Governments must be careful to balance protections for intermediaries with enforcement against sites that ignore or even encourage hateful and other problematic content, she said.

Internet intermediary liability has become an issue of heightened focused in recent years, as governments worldwide increasingly expect internet companies to police illegal and other problematic content.

Consequently, internet companies — particular those with large numbers of users posting content — have a tremendous amount at stake in determining their potential liability, O’Connor said.