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January 30, 2012

Is it time to end the online comments free-for-all on news websites?

By Cleland Thom

A relaxation in the rules on handling user-generated content on media websites is proving to be a mixed blessing.

It is just over two years since the High Court ruled that newspaper and magazine websites qualified as internet service providers (ISPs) and were NOT responsible for readers’ posts on talk boards.

The judgement meant that they could not be sued for libel, provided they didn’t moderate posts and removed offensive material quickly if there was a complaint.

At the time, many publishers rejoiced in their new-found freedom and the reduction in their workloads – no more moderating!

But for some, the joy has been short-lived. They have found that non-moderation has led to their talk boards being peppered with comments that are not just defamatory, but obscene, racist, vulgar and inflammatory as well.

This affects their brands and their reputations and means their printed space and web space are two different creatures.

The irony is that a letter used on a printed letters page is carefully checked – there’s so many laws it could breach.

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But the same letter can be used on a talk board without being checked at all – and may contain libels, expletives and anything else the reader likes.

One editor tells us:

We’re caught between a rock and a hard place. We haven’t got the staff to moderate the posts – there’s too many of them.

But if we don’t moderate them, the talk boards damage us. We don’t want to be associated with some of the rubbish that people put there.

The answer is either to reintroduce moderation, or close the talk boards and replace them with a more tightly controlled discussion group.

There is some talk of having separate sections on the same site – some moderated, some not. But it is not clear whether the courts would accept that the same site could be both an ISP and a publisher. I think it is unlikely.

What’s your experience?

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