Nancy White shared a snippet and link on Friday (over at On-Fac mailing list) that’s worth commenting.
Apparently a software firm down under (2Clix) is suing a forum where its products were being subject to very harsh criticism by many users. 2Clix claim to have asked the site to retire the offending posts, and that they have suffered “injurious falsehood” and damages above 150.000 australian dollars. The site vows to fight the cause and is collecting money.
Every country has its own legal framework re online libel (and those which don’t, soon will), but it is a real issue. Unchecked forum comments can be defamatory and damaging, and not just in an innocent way: I have known cases of competitors slamming the opposition and trying to pose as consumers, too. On the other hand, peer opinion is doubtlessly very useful and morally irreproachable.
So the issue is, where to set the limits and how to make online forums safe for everyone, including themselves. There’s a few tricks that have been learned the hard way, but I’m sure there’s people out there with more and better ideas. Mine are:
- Use the FAQs/rules to make sure defamatory or insulting language is forbidden.
- Make sure moderators are listening and help users to phrase accusations in a way that does not include calling the kind of names that judges call (“liar” may make the cut, but “swindler” doesn’t; “lookalike” could pass, “fake” can’t; “crap” migh, “false description” is compromising), and even then phrase them as opinions (“in my experience, …”).
- When there is an actual felony in the air (criminal behaviour has been detected), make sure any acts attributed to a third party are described as reported to the authorities (i.e. ask that the user denounce to the police, then tell us the report they made). Pursue and eradicate hearsay and public trials. Try to get the issue off public channels even while you follow it (we had a fraudulent default not long ago that could have got nasty, and an eBay swindler that received a user “visit”).
- Always err on the side of caution, prudence and good manners. But always be wary.
- Upon contact by an incensed firm, ask that they get in direct contact with the author of the offending message and straighten the story (works wonders: most often they realise that the story is true and either drop the complaint or manage to solve the issue and the customer changes his story).
- Allow the firms to tell their story (and watch out in case there’s flaming or abusive language).
- Be cooperative, not confrontational. Kind, even to say “no”. Don’t be brash. Too many people react to manner more than to substance, and will appreciate your explanations while you refuse to change a damaging message.
- Be aware that there may be truth in the accusation. Too many people are ready to pile in on hearsay, and there’s always the odd person interested in getting a pound of flesh.
If all else fails…
- Have an in-house lawyer :-). A sound knowledge of applicable legislation’s got us out of a few scrapes.
What’s yours? How do you make sure your communities don’t slander, and don’t get sued for it? Any horror stories?