A website where consumers can post (typically negative) comments about businesses and their goods and services recently won an appeal in a case brought against it by a New York city car dealership, Nemet Chevrolet. The website, consumeraffairs.com, is structured to serve as a forum for developing class action lawsuits (according to the website, it "empowers consumers by providing a forum for their complaints and a means for them to be contacted by lawyers if their complaints have legal merit."). Nemet argued that consumeraffairs.com should be held responsible – and liable – for defamation as a result of negative postings by users about Nemet. Consumeraffairs.com argued that it was shielded from immunity under the Communications Decency Act, since it was not participating in the creation of the negative comments about Nemet, and thus was not an information content provider. The Fourth Circuit agreed, and in deciding for consumeraffairs.com, expressly distinguished this case from a similar one brought against the website Roommates.com. In the Roommates.com case, certain posting features of the website were designed so that the only content that could be posted through them was content that violated the law. As a result, the Ninth Circuit held that Roommates.com was participating in the creation of the content, by forcing users to violate the law when they used those site features. On the consumeraffairs.com website, in contrast, consumers were not forced to violate the law, and those who made negative comments could use the website to post legal (negative) content.
TIP: If you are creating an interactive forum on your website where users can post content, take care to ensure that you are not forcing users to violate the law when creating content. While you may be able to encourage users to post negative commentary about other parties, doing so is not without risk. You should only offer this service after ensuring that you will not be held responsible for those negative comments under the argument that you are a "co-author."