Saturday, February 09, 2013
"Fairfax Underground" forum, with anonymous gossip, could provoke discussion about Section 230; attention called to West Springfield High School c.p. suspects
A story by Tom Jackman in the Metro Section of the Washington Post on Saturday February 9, 2013 underlines a possible future controversy over Section 230 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act (or Communications Deceny Act). The story is “Online postings expose a scandal: Facts, rumors on teens’ arrests get equal billing at Fairfax Underground”, link here.
The discussion board at issue, “Fairfax Underground”, link here This site is a discussion forum about events in Fairfax County, VA. It has a very “Web 1.0” look to it. Discussion forums were very popular before social media came along, particularly before 2000. At one time, there was an “Independent Gay Forum”, a forum on gay issues that was run by persons in the D.C. area with a libertarian bent. One of the best forums ever, about the Independent movie business, came with Project Greenlight (run by Miramax Pictures and Matt Damon early in the last decade). There used to be many controversial forums (particularly about gays in the military) on AOL in the mid and late 1990s. Forums have generally become less visible since people turned to social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. The one big exception to this statement, of course, would be "consumer ratings" sites (like Yelp), which have recently attracted lawsuits against posters and gag orders from doctors.
Fairfax Underground is run by Cary Wiedemann. A 28-year-old Virginia native and set up in 2005. Wiedemann is also a systems manager. The article says that he runs it as a sole proprietorship (which some lawyers say is risky – as in a book on Internet law by Mike Young, soon to be reviewed on my Book Reviews blog.
The site allows and perhaps attracts anonymous posting (again, anonymity has been argued as a First Amendment right – except on Facebook), and sometimes the posts could contain supposedly confidential information. At particular issue is the posting of the names of West Springfield High school male students arrested for (supposedly) producing child pornography (discussed on my “COPA Blog” on Feb. 3, 2013). The police and local government are prohibited by Virginia law from releasing the names of juveniles arrested until certain requirements are met. But it is not illegal for a private citizen to post the names on the web (unless ordered not to do so by a court for some reason), and Website hosts (whether Facebook, discussion forums, rating sites, or blogs with comments like mine) are not considered liable.
Wiedemann says he does monitor some content, such as that from outside northern Virginia (at least from overseas), content in poor taste or obviously malicious. It is possible to monitor comments under Section 230 without incurring liability (as long as you don’t add material to the comments).
Some lawyers say that a site like Fairfax Underground tend to attract people who want to spread gossip, and that such sites create a nuisance.
In one incident. Fairfax County Public Schools obtained a court injunction requiring Wiedemann to remove a posting of class grades, even though the posting had no personal information that could have been used for identity theft.
Wiedemann makes no money from the site. I didn’t see any advertising on the site when I looked at it this morning.
The Section 230 issue highlights a growing cultural divide on how we implement “personal responsibility”. Is that to be viewed as an absolutely individual concept (as libertarians see it), or are we morally responsible for “watching each other’s backs”. People who have kids (married or not) tend to support more restriction on (First Amendment) free speech to protect kids (and might want to see more downstream liability, which could shut down the Internet as we know it). On the other hand, very often the very same people are quite extreme in defending their purported Second Amendment rights to own weapons to defend their families, something they see as a moral duty in a world that they see as unsustainable and likely to break down.
I do monitor comments on my blogs (spam is removed automatically). In the past (although not so much recently) I removed comments that appeared to be nothing more than unrelated ads or that attempted (in one of two cases) to invite users to download fake anti-virus software. Now these don’t get past monitoring or spam filters.
By the way, negative comments that merely express opinions are accepted and do not represent defamation. There is in libel law a concept called “the Opinion Rule”. For a good example, look at a negative comment made on my review of a book by Dr. Phil on the Books blog Feb. 1, 2008.