Managing the legal risks of UGC: Key issues to consider

Friday 29 August 2014, 15:54

Damian Radcliffe Damian Radcliffe is a journalist and researcher. Twitter: @damianradcliffe

A new report outlines some of the key legal issues faced by publishers of user-generated content. Damian Radcliffe dives in and identifies some high-profile risks that no digital journalist can afford to ignore.

BBC online appeal for UGC BBC online appeal for UGC

User-generated content (UGC) is an established part of 21st Century journalism, with contributions ranging from the submission of photographs and comments through to the hosting of regular columnists and guest bloggers.

As research by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism has recently shown, many established news organisations struggle to understand how to credit these types of contributions. Publishers like Forbes and the Huffington Post have come under heavy fire in some quarters for building their digital brands off the back of high-volume and frequently unpaid user submissions.

Nonetheless, UGC is clearly here to stay. New technologies make it ever easy for citizens to contribute content in the form of pictures, videos or full articles to mainstream media outlets.

In May, CNN announced that citizen journalists can now interact with its newsroom direct via a Google Glass app. Meanwhile smartphones such as Nokia’s Lumia 1020 - which offers a 41MP camera sensor, full HD video and stereo audio recording - increasingly blur the lines between material shot by a member of the public and professional production.

With both established players and smaller local publishers embracing UGC as part of their content mix, a new white paper written by the journalist David Banks, and published by n0tice in an effort to leverage wider usage of their UGC platform, offers a useful recap of the laws that UK publishers need to consider.

The Banks report is easy to read and, although I would like to have seen more examples of these legal principles and challenges in action, the 19-page paper is a handy primer for anyone with an interest in UK media law.

I’d recommend reading the full guide, but if you don’t have time here are some lessons worth highlighting and remembering, whether you’re new to UGC or an old hand:

1.       Defamation

In the social media age, this is probably the element of media law with the highest profile. It’s a complex area, but a couple of aspects are particularly worth noting.

The first is the ‘repetition rule’ whereby “anyone who repeats a libel has a liability for it”.  

As the report notes: “A claimant can theoretically sue the entire chain of people who spread libellous material,” and, as the author states, “they have been known to do so.”

One of the best known examples of this in recent years relates to the retweeting of false allegations against Lord McAlpine. This resulted in high-profile damages being paid to the Tory peer by Sally Bercow and comedian Alan Davies - following tweets on the subject (the BBC has a handy guide to Twitter and the law).

Alongside this, there was an Ofcom investigation into the broadcasting of the allegations. It saw both the BBC and ITV being censured by the regulator, with the two organisations also paying damages to the peer.

The lesson here is that publishers cannot simply share online (whether on their website or over a social channel) material which others are distributing.

For users, the same checks and balances need to apply to this content as if you had originated it in the first place.

2.       Third-party comments

Most websites now feature space for reader comments. The sheer volume of contributions across these sites means that pre-moderating (reviewing them before publication) is unviable. However, this means that publishers may be inadvertently hosting user comments which are potentially untrue and libellous.

Fortunately, in this space the “online publishers defence” means that you are not liable for these comments unless the contribution was pre-moderated prior to publication. This defence - coupled with the volume of user contributions most sites now receive - is probably a key reason why most news sites are now post-moderated.

In the event of any defamatory material being placed on a website, the guide notes that, provided “you take down the defamatory material once you are notified of its presence, you avoid liability for it”.

These kinds of issues can affect publishers large and small. Judith Townend’s Meeja Law website has highlighted challenges faced by the Isle of Wight-based website OnTheWight. Non-news sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor have had to contend with issues arising from bad reviews.

But it’s worth noting that you cannot be sued for defamatory material which has been on your site for more than a year, as complainants cannot sue after a period of 12 months from the original online publication date.

Read more about these topics by downloading the white paper by completing this form.

In a second post, I’ll look at another big issue that requires careful handling in relation to UGC: the question of copyright.

The BBC College of Journalism’s law section

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