My OII colleague Tobias Escher reports on a German decision on website operator liability for user-posted content. A professor unhappy with his reviews on Meinprof.de, such as comments calling him a “psychopath,” sued. The site had removed the comments on his complaint, but he nonetheless demanded that the site pay a fine and be enjoined from allowing similar comments to be re-posted. The appeals court sensibly rejected that injunction. According to Tobias:
The court has decided that a general cease and desist for unacceptable comments is against the law. As a professor one has to face public criticism that cannot be prohibited ex ante.
In general this is a positive outcome for web sites that leverage the wisdom of the crowds as it offers some protection for the often not-for-profit operators of these sites. However, this does not justify defamatory comments on those sites and the court has emphasized the operators duty to remove those entries as soon as they are recognized. Last but not least, the subject under public scrutiny does matters as professors might well be made to face personal criticism in their role as public figures while teachers and nurses might have to be treated differently.
German law lacks a CDA Section 230, which immunizes U.S. service providers from defamation liability for user-contributed comments. So RateMyTeachers.com can ignore claims of defamation, leaving U.S. teachers to fight back with words, leaving their own comments or questioning the reliability of the site.
German sites, by contrast, can be held liable for their users’ false assertions. If such liability were automatic, triggered immediately upon the posting of a defamatory comment, sites that permitted users to post content might as well paint lawsuit targets on their homepages: anyone could claim to have been defamed there; anyone unhappy with postings could get a heckler’s veto against not just individual posts but the site itself. Sensibly, then, the MeinProf.de court limits the potentially unbounded liability in a manner similar to the U.S. caution against prior restraints of speech. The site can’t be held liable until it has been given an opportunity to defend or remove the post; those who want to make libel claims against hosts should start by giving the host notice.
My U.S.-centric view is still that posters and their subjects should battle over online defamation between themselves, leaving their online hosts out of the picture. As we all depend on intermediaries to speak online, our speech gets less free with each new burden and risk-sensitivity we put on the intermediaries. Those who feel victimized have access to the same speech technologies to respond — putting them on a more level playing field than arises when one calls in the law and an intermediary is chilled. In the German context and legal tradition, however, this decision seems to get close.