Webmasters Beware: legal liability for user-provided content

June 14, 2012

Govt internet controlPreviously, we alerted you to the troubling international trend of the growing number of legal prosecutions against individuals based on content they posted on the Internet. 

Now, we bring to your attention the related, and equally troubling, efforts of different jurisdictions to hold webmasters legally responsible for material posted by individual Internet users.

Imposition of Internet content controls is a strategy which should only be applied with extreme caution, as it holds the potential for dramatically impeding the beneficial impact of online activities.

Recently, Chiranuch Premchaiporn was prosecuted in Thailand under that nation’s Computer Crimes Act. 

Authorities in Thailand alleged that comments insulting the Thai royal family were posted on a web site operated by Ms. Chiranuch.  Content of that nature is illegal in Thailand.

Authorities further alleged that Ms. Chiranuch failed to delete the posts promptly, as is required by the Act.

Under the Act, Ms. Chiranuch could have received a maximum sentence of twenty years in prison. 

Instead, the court convicted Ms. Chiranuch and assessed both a 20,000 baht ($630) fine and an eight month suspended prison sentence.

Thailand is not alone in applying an aggressive approach to control online content by holding both individual Internet users and online service providers legally responsible for content.

Vietnam, for example, is reportedly developing laws which would apply sanctions against individuals and organizations that enable parties to post content critical of the government.

In most of these cases it is worth noting that the content being restricted is illegal under the applicable national laws regardless of the medium through which it is communicated. 

The material would have been illegal if it had been broadcast on radio or printed in a publication, as well.

These content controls are not Internet-specific, however, they have a particularly adverse chilling effect on the Internet.

Legal sanctions applied against web site operators and other online service providers have significant impact.

The content controls applied by the government of Thailand, for example, apply not only to webmasters located in Thailand, but are also applicable to web site operators located elsewhere to the extent that their sites are accessible in Thailand.

Governments around the world have grand expectations of the positive impact the Internet can provide for their economies.

They should recognize, however, that in order to realize fully those expectations, Internet service providers and users must be free from overly intrusive content controls. 

Governments have the authority to regulate online content as they see fit.

We can only hope that they will understand that broad application of online content controls will undermine their efforts to use the Internet as a source of economic growth.