Forum Moderation

Shetlink has just celebrated its second birthday, and as it toddles into the terrible twos I’d like to thank the moderators who have baby sat the forum for the past 2 years. This merry band of moderators are the five volunteers responsible for keeping discussions on track, and have powers to edit other peoples messages and other general forum housekeeping capacities.

The first year of moderating the forum was mostly fun as aabody found their feet, but the last year has seen Shetlink becoming more ‘established’, with some rules and regulations evolving and social conventions excogitating.

Forum moderators have a difficult job, balancing freedom of speech with censorship, and the Shetlink moderators regularly receive correspondence from people who feel aggrieved by comments made on the forums, sometimes accompanied with threats of legal action. Which raises some interesting points. Who exactly is legally responsible for comments made on Internet forums? The website owners? The forum moderators? The users themselves?

Waters are muddied due to a lack of international consensus. For example, in normally liberal Sweden the moderators of a forum were recently sued because a user posted libelous comments, despite the fact the moderators removed the comments within hours of them being written. But in the more conservative US of A, forum ‘owners’ aren’t held responsible for what user created content is published on their websites.

In the UK the law is less clear cut. Here, the irony is that if a forum moderator attempts to edit libelous content then the moderators themselves can be considered as authors, and if their edits aren’t sufficient to ‘clean up’ someone else’s writings, the moderator can be held legally accountable. But if a forum is left un-moderated, and users can post whatever they wish, forum owners can plead ignorance and claim no knowledge of their facility’s misuse.

On top of that, the law on what constitutes libel is subjective at best. If a libelous statement is aimed at an anonymous or assumed identity, as is often the case with Internet forums, there is no case. To be considered libelous, statements must be made against a real individual, by name or strong insinuation, in a public arena. And in a close knit place like Shetland, there’s little difference between naming someone and insinuation.

And forum moderators can only be held legally responsible if they have consciously allowed the libellous or otherwise illegal comments to remain in public view, assuming the forum moderator is aware of the statement, is aware of which law is being infringed and has had ample opportunity to remove the statement, but has chosen not to do so. A subjective area indeed!

Even if these factors are demonstrable, it’s unlikely that a case could be brought unless there is also proof that the aggrieved party has suffered financial loss, significant damage to their reputation or some other serious tangible negative factor as a result.

So spare a thought for the poor moderators. An often operose and onerous task!

Article for Shetland Life magazine – January 2008