A long, long time ago, at the dawn of the internet, courts decided that companies that hosted online forums, chat rooms, bulletin boards, etc… were not liable for the content others posted there. This had far-reaching consequences. It also meant, for instance, that while a newspaper’s own online article could expose it to liability if it went too far, comments to the article posted by third parties on the paper’s web site do not expose it to suit. The same is true, I am happy to say, for blogs. On top of all that, Congress has since followed suit and enshrined those rulings into federal law.
This all seems evident today, the role of the internet as a modern-day public square being well established. But it was forward looking in the stone age – 1995.
By the same token, not all activities by online hosts are exempt from liability. One company that hosted advertisement for tenants added a drop-down menu to is functionality, where one could filter the ads to find only people of a certain race or gender. Since the only role of the drop-down menu was to help people break anti-discrimination laws, and the drop-down was provided by the host itself, the host was liable.
Likewise, the negligence lawsuit against a forum for models and would-be models was allowed to proceed, when the forum’s host company was accused to have known its site was frequented by sexual predators and failed to warn its members. It may not be liable for what others say or do, but could be liable for failure to warn of a danger it knew about.
For all that, host immunity still carries a punch. A company who felt itself defamed by comments from third parties on a Florida-based investment website sued to have the comments removed. But since the website had no liability for the statements, it could not be subjected to a Court Order to remove them.
A good attorney will know the difference between what can and cannot be done. A good company with an internet presence should know it too.