If you’re in the reputation management business, perhaps you’ve heard about this week’s jury verdict that found Nik Richie, the owner of TheDirty.com, was liable for content published on his website that was submitted by a third party. The dispute began several years ago when an anonymous post on the gossip site accused former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader and former school teacher Sarah Jones of having had sexual contact with the football players on the team and went even further in posting negative tidbits about Jones.
On her behalf, Jones was convicted late last year for having a sexual relationship with a former high school student (who was 17 at the time, but is now her fiancee) while she was teaching there. As a part of the plea bargain with prosecutors, Jones was given 5 years probation without having to serve any jail time or register publicly as a sex offender. However, the recent lawsuit – which initially resulted in a hung jury in Kentucky – has gained a massive amount of attention in the past 24 hours due to the verdict which awarded Jones $338,000 in damages (Jones sought $11 million) due to content that was posted about her on TheDirty.com website.
Publishing Third Party Content
In the past, those who have sought to get content removed from a website or to even seek damages for something personal or damaging that was posted on a high traffic source have been shot down by the Communications Decency Act that was passed into law in 1996. The Act was originally aimed at regulating pornographic material on the Internet. However, it also specifically states that operators of Internet services are not publishers. Section 230 reads, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” This is an important designation due to the large amount of opinions and views that are published anonymously on forums that enjoy heavy online traffic.
According to the law, the content published by others does not mean the owner of a website is publishing it personally – nor is he/she responsible for removing that content except in specific cases which are covered by copyright. What is so distinct about Thursday’s ruling is that for the first time in a high profile case, a jury has found in favor of the victim (and against a website owner) and has even awarded punitive damages for content that was posted anonymously by someone other than the actual operator of the site.
While this will certainly turn a lot of heads in a business where high traffic online forums often dominate the rumor mill in a particular industry, it may not mean that website owners will suddenly be held responsible for posts that are published on their sites by visitors and members. In TheDirty.com’s case, the material is directly moderated by Richie himself, who then routinely adds a brief sentence or two at the end of the “news item” in his own words.
This differs substantially from how most high traffic forums deal with content moderation – where a group of employees or volunteers forages over submissions as quickly as possible as it evolves in real time in an atmosphere where posts are automatically published by default. In most cases, website owners who have a high traffic forum on their site may not be directly involved with how posts on a public forum are handled, but in Richie’s case the posts are approved directly by him with his own comments immediately below the post.
Appeal Is Next
After Thursday’s verdict, news quickly spread on TheDirty.com and several reputation management news outlets – while Richie’s lawyer David Gingras told media members that the verdict had been reached due to an incorrect mandate by U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman. TheDirty.com’s attorney on the other hand said, “What the jury did today was follow a legally incorrect instruction given by the judge that said basically they were required to treat a website owner as a publisher or something that someone else wrote.”
Gingras promised that TheDirty.com and its owner Nik Richie will appeal the verdict and went on to state that the judge’s instruction was “100% wrong” according to federal law.
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