The physical and digital worlds are becoming one and the same. The social experience has shifted, and common words like ‘virus’, ‘mouse’ and ‘like’ have double-meanings. And much like our day-to-day reality, the online realm functions in accordance with laws that should be known by all, digital participants or not.
While perusing your favorite social media site, imagine you come across a link to a video containing libelous statements about you. If this information is negative enough, you may want to take legal action—like you would if such information was posted in the physical realm. But in cases of Internet law, also known as cyberlaw, who is at fault? The social media organization? The person who shared the link? The video-hosting site? Section 230 says nope, nadda and no way, according to Mark Sableman, partner at Thompson Coburn.
“It’s very clear why Section 230—or something like it—was needed,” explains Sableman, who taught Internet law at Washington University. “I don’t think the Internet could have functioned well if every intermediary was always in fear of liabilities arising from the many thousands, if not millions, of postings that flow through its facilities.” Section 230, part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, keeps intermediaries immune in most cases, says Sableman, with exceptions only for intermediaries that provided enough of the questionable content to be considered a fellow author.
Instead of taking legal action against YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and others in cases of disparaging posts, Sableman says the original poster or creator of the content is responsible and must be located. And in a digital world of false identities (Sableman notes how many online criminals apparently live in New York—the state that houses the zip code 12345), this isn’t always simple. “Yes, you can trace things down occasionally—but it can be costly and time consuming,” he says.
Kirk Stange, partner at Stange Law Firm, points out that libel suits only occur when damages, such as a job loss or a decrease in business, can be proven as a result of the content. “Anybody who’s posting on the Internet ought to be careful,” advises Stange, who also recommends that people compare the cost in damages to the potential legal costs before having the paperwork drawn.
With regulations so forgiving to online intermediaries, how can a person protect their image from untrue information? To those who are most concerned, Sableman recommends consulting with a reputation management organization; these groups work to “bury” the in-question postings to keep them practically hidden online.
For the less worried, Sableman recommends searching yourself on the Internet sporadically to look for negative content. Should you find it, deal with it immediately. While these intermediary websites are not legally required to act, according to Sableman, Section 230 does note that sites may act as a ‘Good Samaritan’ by removing or blocking inappropriate content without fear of legal retaliation—meaning, if there is disparaging content about you, the first step is to ask that it be removed. “I’ve found that by acting promptly, you can often get a responsible intermediary to take things down. And if that happens promptly, then it’s not picked up by search engines, and put into caches, picked up by bloggers and linked to elsewhere.”
While libel is a large aspect of Internet law, specifics in marketing regulations should be of key interest to those involved in business, Stange says. “You’ve got all these search engines out there, and you have got to make sure that the advertising that you do is in conformity with the policies that those search engines have set forth.”