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Understanding the Communications Decency Act


If you have an online business, or a business with an online presence, public engagement is vital. Getting people to review your product, getting them debating, and engaging in discussions, can drive online traffic, and thus sales, to your site.

But with interaction comes the pervasive problem of monitoring what people say. They could say something bad about you, but then the ball is in your court—you can decide whether to take legal action or not. But what if someone says something defamatory about someone else, on your website?

Could You be Sued?

The person allegedly defamed won’t just look to the speaker of the defamatory statement for compensation or damages—they may look to you, as the host of the site, listserve, blog or message board.

In traditional defamation law, it’s not just the speaker who is liable for the defamatory statement, it is everybody that publishes the statement. So, if I say something defamatory about you and it is published in the newspaper, both I, and the newspaper can be sued. When the internet was young, that led to many people suing websites or website hosts, for “publishing” defamatory statements.

The Communications Decency Act

But congress realized many years ago that if websites or online hosts or social media platforms could be sued for things that others say on their site, it could have a chilling effect; businesses may opt not to open up online, or else, it would stifle the free flow of information that happens online.

That’s why in 1996 the Communications Decency Act was passed. The law makes website hosts immune for the defamatory statements that are said on their platforms or sites.

This includes anybody who hosts blogs, or message boards, or listservs. It even includes parties that you pay to write blog posts, or comments, or to host discussions. None of them are considered publishers for the purpose of defamation law, under the Act.

Editing Comments

Editing existing comments is a mixed bag.

On one hand, if you edit a comment that is defamatory, that doesn’t make you liable for that statement. On the other hand, if your actual edit creates the defamation then you can be sued—that is, if the original statement was not defamatory, but your edit makes it so, then there may be liability.

When You are Not Immune

The one major exception to this immunity, is criminal violations. So, if someone used your platform to plan out a robbery, you may have liability.

The law also does not immunize you from intellectual property violations; if someone violates a copyright or trademark on your site, you can still be held liable as if you were the original infringer.

Remember all of this only applies to the online world—in the “real world,” such as with traditional printed media, radio, or TV, the same defamation laws apply.

Questions about keeping your online business safe? Call our Fort Lauderdale business law lawyers at Sweeney Law P.A. at 954-440-3993 today for help.




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