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Are Social Networking Sites Liable for the Actions of its Users?

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I know GameDev is a forum for game development and game-related topics. But this question could just as easily apply to some web-based multi-player game as it does to Facebook.

Last night my friends and I were arguing about a hypothetical situation where social networking sites could be liable for the actions of its users.

I will reiterate that this is a *hypothetical* question; this question does not involve me personally in any way, shape or form.

Let's say you have two Facebook users. One user, call him/her Person A, has knowledge about Person B that is private and sensitive in nature. Person A posts that information up on Facebook for all the world to see.
Let's say this information includes a terribly embarassing fact about the person's past, as well as their social security number and credit card. Let's say that Person A, in addition to posting flagrantly-personal
information, also makes some libelous statements about Person B: "Person B was arrested for manslaughter back in 1945." (Since Person B was born in, say, 1970, there is no way this is even possible).

What I'm interested is this: is Facebook liable here for contributing to this publication of Person B's private info, and/or for the making of these libelous statements?

Even though it was Person A who wrote those libelous/defaming comments, and published that private information, it is Facebook who delivers the medium by which those comments reach the outside world. No one at Facebook made the offending comments - but could Facebook be on the hook here? And of course, I recognize that different states and different courts have different rules and interpretations...I'm looking for hypothetical, ballpark, generic consensus.

I've brushed up on NYS (I'm a Yankee) and federal law regarding both publishing private information as well as libel, but in the context of the internet, it is hard to distinguish the role and liability that Facebook plays as the "middle man"
here.

If I had to make a total laymen, uneducated guess, I would say that no court in its right mind would hold Facebook liable for what its users post, so long as it does everything on its part to remain within the confines of state/federal law (for instance, since Facebook collects personal information it must conspicuously post a compliant privacy policy on all of its web pages, etc.).

If someone were to grafitti "John Doe of 123 ABC Lane, Bronx, NY was convicted on manslaughter in 1945" on the side of some building, and that statement was false & damaging to John Doe, he wouldn't be able to sue the building owner for being partially-liable. That would be ridiculous! Why not sue the spray paint manufacturer as well! I have to assume the same goes for Facebook and other social networking sites in these types of situations.

Then again, I'm a little ways below the paygrade of an esquire.

Any thoughts?

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No.

(Don't you agree not to do such things when you sign up for Facebook or whatever?)

Also, I'm pretty sure any man can use the title of "esquire" in a formal context.

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What I'm interested is this: is Facebook liable here for contributing to this publication of Person B's private info, and/or for the making of these libelous statements?


IANAL;

Not by my understanding. Facebook would only be liable if it:

- Possibly, if it did not cooperate with police during a investigation about the post. (free speech & common carrier protection might apply here)
- Possibly, if it did not remove the libelous material once shown reasonable evidence that it was in fact libelous. (As they can then be seen as contributing/perpetuating the libel).
- If Facebook somehow met the conditions for depraved indifference; which is unlikely for something like a single post. You'd likely need something like the somewhat recent cyber-bullying cases.

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Last night my friends and I were arguing about a hypothetical situation where social networking sites could be liable for the actions of its users.

That's fun, isn't it? You and we here can argue about that, but it's a judge or jury who will decide. There are always at least two ways to view a question, often with solid arguments on either side. Someone might sue the site in court, and a judge will decide whether the suit has merit, then a judge or a jury will decide which party prevails in the suit.

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Have to agree with Tom on this one.

There is a huge body of law for what a service provider could be held liable for, and what they are immune from liability for.

There is a constant flow of legal threats and legal posturing that takes place at large companies like those. They constantly see things from irate customers saying things like "UR delete my posts U B Sued!" and similar background noise by disgruntled customers, all the way up through serious legal complaints for take-down demands when someone has clearly violated another user's rights.

For such a thing to make it through the court system would be exceptional. The courts take serious efforts to encourage settlement on this type of civil matter. Judges often require settlement talks through the entire process, even before the first hearings. Judges will often require both parties to inform the court exactly what they refuse to settle on. In the rare events that it goes through to a final decision, there is often yet another requirement that the parties negotiate a settlement before the court decides on penalties. Very few civil suits like the ones you described will ever make it to the final phase of having the court define the penalties.

Can it happen? Sure. Does it happen occasionally? Yes. Is it something business lawyers will discuss with their clients in managing risks? Absolutely. Is it worth debating a hypothetical situation in a public forum? Not really.




In order for any such thing to be decided by the courts there must be a very specific problem, accompanied by several very specific actions (or inaction) that took place over a period of time, and some irreconcilable differences that require a large fortune in legal fees to resolve.

For the very rare cases where there is such an issue, we get lots of active debate that gets to go on for years. Those court cases are detailed and nuanced. Some court cases have been argued at various supreme court have hinged on details such as the placement of a comma in an agreement, or the precise wording and the interpretation of a single word in a specific context.


In-depth discussions about non-existent cases simply doesn't make sense. There are no violations of action or inaction, no actual contracts or agreements to be violated, no findings of fact, no specific statutes, no actual court crucible... Combined this makes the hypothetical debate meaningless.

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Is it worth debating a hypothetical situation in a public forum? Not really.
... Combined this makes the hypothetical debate meaningless.

To add a bit to this: discussing this question will net a number of opinions. It will not and cannot net a definitive answer to the originally posited question.

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FB would not be liable in the United States under the facts you set out because they are not editing or screening the speech. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Section_230_of_the_Communications_Decency_Act, has been interpreted by courts to provide broad immunity to interet service providers against claims arising from content posted by unaffiliated users.

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That's fun, isn't it? You and we here can argue about that, but it's a judge or jury who will decide. There are always at least two ways to view a question, often with solid arguments on either side. Someone might sue the site in court, and a judge will decide whether the suit has merit, then a judge or a jury will decide which party prevails in the suit.


To add a bit to this: discussing this question will net a number of opinions. It will not and cannot net a definitive answer to the originally posited question. [/quote]These could be said to every post posted in this forum, ever... ;) It also argues away the need to ever see a solicitor for legal advice...

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Are phone companies liable for the activities of its users? Are airports liable for the activities of its users? Are taxi drivers liable for the activity of their patrons? etc.. Society has figured this out along time ago, service providers unless they are providing a knowingly illegal service are not liable in most cases, however lawyers will always push the bounds ie MPAA when there is enough money involved and exceptions are made esp when someone abuses the system so egregiously ie Facebook stalker leading to suicide, etc.. Social media is relatively new and it will take a few decades to work out all the laws..

-ddn

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