Legal risks with online web chat, groups and forums

With the growth in use of social media, web chat, groups, forums and message boards have become an easier way for communicating with friends family and colleague.

But recent high profile cases reveal that web chat is risky business for users wanting to share their opinions. And employers may be liable for the opinions of their staff.

This article looks at the use of web chat, forums and groups on your website - a risky activity and fertile ground for litigation based on defamation laws. Unlike other materials published online, website owners don't have full control over discussion threads.


Defamation defence for ISPs


An ISP (Internet Service Provider) who hosts Internet newsgroups or discussion forums can, unless having actual or constructive knowledge of the statement, or failing to take reasonable care, take advantage of the 'secondary disseminator' defence under the Defamation Act and avoid liability for a defamatory posting to the newsgroup or forum.

The Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002 also provides a further defence against a claim for damages and is available to those who innocently host (i.e. store) the offending information on behalf of others.


Defamation defence for non-ISPs


 

The defence under the Defamation Act is not available to commercial online publishers, so they may have to consider vetting chat room, forum and group posts both from a legal and insurance perspective.

They can use The Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002 to find a defence. The Defamation Act 2013 updates the UK laws of defamation and adds a section 5 defence for website operators which applies where an action for defamation is brought against a website operator in respect of a statement posted on the website.


Remove any offending material immediately


You must remove any offending material as soon as possible. Remember that online publication is continuous - every time a user accesses your site.


Written terms and conditions of use


Written terms and conditions should be placed in a prominent place on your website to inform users about their responsibilities whilst using your site. Ideally, you should ensure users have agreed to the terms and conditions by using a click through method.


You never know who is in a chatroom!


  • Never type anything you wouldn't say in public...
  • Chatrooms are used by people to take advantage of others - to find victims
  • people may seem to have a lot in common with their potential victim
  • people may be friendly and good listeners too
  • People don't necessarily tell the truth about who they are and are not always who they seem to be.
  • Some chatrooms get into subjects associated with sex or cults or groups that do potentially dangerous things; some people may try to convince others (their targeted victims) to do something they don't want to do.
  • Some people will try to turn their targeted victims against family, guardians, learning provider staff, or friends.

Some chatroom services and web sites allow people to enter into a private chat area. Once there they can arrange to meet people. In some cases...

  • those rooms are truly private,
  • they may be listed in a directory of rooms - if that is the case, there is nothing to stop others from entering those rooms. Extra care is required in these rooms, or avoid them altogether.

A smart way to avoid harassment in a chat room is to choose a name that doesn't let people know if you're a male or female; just ensure the name doesn't let anyone know anything about you or mean something that may encourage others to bother you.