It’s hardly surprising that online libel litigation is becoming a growth industry. A steady surge in the number of social and digital channels has not only created a rich platform for user generated content, it has exposed internet operators to the increased risk of publishing discriminatory or defamatory opinion.
And in the most extreme cases, without the appropriate due diligence and processes to identify and eradicate calumnious comments, a libel lawsuit could be just an errant mouse click away. So how do you strengthen operations to avoid it? It’s a question of identity.
The Libel Bible
Legislation to combat online defamation is evolving. But, though the internet is a global animal, regulations vary from region to region. In the US, websites that host reviews are generally not liable for defamation under federal law, but may be culpable if a blog post is followed by the publication of a defamatory comment – even if the comment itself was not written by the blogger. Likewise, in Europe web operators face stiff penalties (including custodial sentences) if found in breach of defamation regulations.
In the UK, new libel laws aimed at giving better protection to people expressing their opinions, came into force in January 2014. The Defamation Act requires claimants to show that they have suffered ‘serious harm’ before suing. The legislation is good news for online businesses, making it harder for individuals to sue for defamation. But there remain many hidden pitfalls.
The Act means that website operators no longer need to pre-moderate user comments – giving publishers 48 hours to remove potentially defamatory comments upon receipt of a written complaint. This ‘report and remove’ policy means that companies must establish clear processes to enable the efficient handling of complaints, but it also gives them the opportunity to manage the process in-house rather than incurring unnecessary legal fees to defend a claim.
Yet despite these positive developments, websites cannot afford to be complacent. With online publishers, and indeed consumer brands, increasingly using commenting platforms to build interactive user communities, the risk of defamatory comments slipping through the net increases. Publishers need to ensure that their systems are configured to identify, alert and manage problem posts, and to mitigate risk.
The Sense Of Identity
The answer is to focus on identifying and authenticating users. The Defamation Act introduces guidelines that allow alert website operators to clear themselves of responsibility for errant comments, and instead pass that responsibility over to the person that posted the offensive remarks.
But this places greater onus on site owners to be able to identify individual users. As a result, websites with messaging boards are increasingly being advised to register users before they are able to post. This makes good sense. Registration provides a platform to establish terms and conditions and inform users that their details may be divulged if they post defamatory comments – a key deterrent.
The fake ID: lie-ability and liability: Naturally, registration should comprise full contact details including an authentic email address. But user IDs are relatively easy to fake. There are a variety of methodologies to authenticate email accounts – but not all of them are infallible; a legitimate email address does not always guarantee a legitimate identity. This in itself can leave publishers exposed in the event of a defamation claim.
The hidden identity: In addition to the fake identity, there is also the potential threat of the ‘hidden identity’; comments posted anonymously can leave online publishers vulnerable to untraceable defamation. Whilst major brands like Facebook and LinkedIn are increasingly taking the view that user identities should be visible and legitimate – and that authenticity drives high quality engagement – anonymity remains popular.
The time barrier: Whilst user registration is acknowledged as a sensible approach to combating online defamation, some publishers are reluctant to introduce it as a mandatory requirement – believing it presents a barrier to engagement.
So how can publishers provide a low barrier for interaction whilst at the same time creating a higher barrier for responsible commenting? Moreover, how can they establish user identity and authenticity without driving people away?
The most effective solution is to maximise social registration technologies. Customer profile management, enabled by social login, allows users to register for websites using the online persona of their choice – Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.
For users, this simplifies the registration and subsequent login processes. For site owners, it strengthens accountability. Why? It’s much harder to fake a social media account, and to attempt to do so places a greater burden on any potential troll.
Social login solutions collect information in a way that satisfies legal requirements. They also lower registration effort to prevent abandonment. Furthermore, social login subsequently gives site operators keen to preserve consumers’ desire to comment anonymously two options.
They can choose not to publish a user’s social identity alongside blog comments (but retain the information at the back end for their own knowledge), or they can force an element of the social profile – such as the Twitter handle or Facebook profile image – to be exposed. The latter can reduce a user’s likelihood of posting defamatory content since they feel it is linked to their social identity.
A Passport To Personalisation
The use of social registration to mitigate the risk of online defamation is just one example of how tying users to their true identities can benefit brands. User registration also presents a powerful marketing opportunity; data captured at registration can inform targeted content, and bolster the commercial proposition to advertisers. Moreover, robust registration processes enable publishers to be transparent about why they want users’ personal information and how they plan to use it.
The long-term value lies not just in social login, but in customer profile management – the idea that a site should be managing a profile for their users that will help them personalise content, match them against more relevant advertisements, improve their experience, and create richer engagements over time.
The most effective online brands will be those with the strongest sense of identity. As communications advance to create increased opportunities for online defamation, social login can help publishers develop the Brawn Identity. It’s the perfect weapon.