SEO Book’s Aaron Wall was sued earlier this week by Traffic-Power.com for alleged inaccuracies and lies appearing in comments other people have left on his blog. If this case goes to trial, it’ll set an important precedent in the blogging community and the Internet at large, answering a critical question, particularly for business blogs: are the comments others leave on your blog a legal liability?
Some background: Aaron Wall runs SEO Book.com, a site focused on search engine optimization strategies and on selling his smart ebook of the same name. In a discussion venue of that nature, it’s no surprise that community members talk about different SEO firms, positively and negatively, and one company that’s been the frequent recipient of negative comments on Aaron’s blog is Traffic Power.com.
Earlier this week Aaron was surprised by a certified letter from a Nevada Attorney’s office notifying him that the parent company of Traffic-Power.com was suing him for the content of his weblog.
With Aaron’s permission, I reproduce some relevant sections of the notification in question:
“Plaintiff undertakes rigorous and extensive measures to safeguard information about its business. Internet placement optimization is a highly competitive business, and if Plaintiff’s trade secrets are revealed competitors can gain a prejudicially unfair advantage over Plaintiff. Accordingly, Plaintiff’s trade secrets are provided to a limited number of people, only on a need-to-know basis and subject to strict confidentiality agreements.
“An unidentified individual, acting alone or in concert with others, has recently misappropriated and disseminated through web sites Plaintiff’s confidential information. This information could have been obtained only through a breach of Plaintiff’s confidentiality agreement. The unauthorized use and distribution of this information violates Nevada’s trade secrets statue and has caused irreparable harm to Plaintiff.”
A bit further down, the lawsuit mentions specific individuals who posted comments on the SEO Book blog, naming them as “John Doe’s”:
“At unknown date or dates, Doe I, alone or in concert with Does I through X, began disseminating Plaintiff’s trade secrets to the public, with such information now available on various web sites. Among other things, Defendant or Defendants posted proprietary relating to Plaintiff’s solicitation, procedures on publicly accessible areas of the internet.”
“The false and defamatory matter is calculated to damage Plaintiff’s reputation, and at the time Defendants published or caused to be published such false and defamatory information about the Plaintiff over the internet, Defendants knew that the information published was false and defamatory and making such defamatory publication, Defendants acted with malice toward the Plaintiff.”
Aaron has a long posting on his blog about both the lawsuit and his thoughts on how to respond, at Notice! You Have Been Sued!, but I have counseled him to remove the posting until he gets legal counsel of his own, so that link might vanish at any time.
As with any lawsuit, there are some very interesting aspects to this one, but if you boil it down to its essence, the plaintiff is claiming damages of $10,000 and irreparable harm due to comments that other people left on Aaron’s blog.
I’m certainly not a lawyer, but as a widely published writer, I’m well aware that legal precedent holds that if you moderate, edit, or prune comments on your online forum — or blog — in any way at all then you stop being able to defend yourself as a common carrier and become a publisher who is, indeed, liable for the content that they publish.
A common carrier is best exemplified by AT&T: since they don’t make phone connection decisions based on what topic is going to be discussed but blindly connect all phone calls, they cannot be held liable for any telephone conversations. Similarly, Dish Network and Comcast cable disseminate all programming from the channels they carry, also putting them in the common carrier categorization. Clear Channel, however, is reputed to axe certain programming if it doesn’t meet their programming guidelines, an editorial policy that should theoretically leave them directly liable for the accuracy of the content they disseminate into the public airwaves.
What I find most telling about this lawsuit is that it’s aimed directly at a blog and a blogger, not related to what the blogger is writing about, but about what others are adding in his comments. By leaving those comments intact while deleting comment spam, obscenities, pre-teen p0rn drivel, etc., Aaron has indeed walked into a surprise firestorm of legal troubles.
However this case may turn out, I see it as a wakeup call to business bloggers who haven’t yet thought through their own comment and comment moderation strategies. In a nutshell: what liability are you exposing yourself to by not strictly moderating the content of your entire blog, not just your own articles?
(Here’s some background reading too, an article I wrote a while ago about crafting the ideal business blog comment strategy.)