Yesterday, Ryan posted a an article entitled “Show You Moderate Your Comments?” in which he concludes that one should not moderate comments, if avoidable, or delete negative ones.
Though I agree with Ryan’s take about commenting, it is worth noting that there are some dangers that come with allowing comments on your site. Though often discussed are annoyances that come with opening up comments, flame wars, spam, etc., there are also legal, ethical and personal issues to consider.
With that in mind, here are four types of comments you definitely do not want on your site and should draw a firm line against. Most of these are just common sense, but they bear repeating regardless.
4. The Libelous Comment
There is a difference between expressing your opinion and saying something that is outright false. A commenter can call someone a jerk or idiot with relative immunity, at least legally, but when a commenter says something that is provably false and damaging to someone’s reputation, it becomes libel. As such, it is important to recognize that this is a serious legal issue.
The good news is that U.S. law protects webmasters and hosts from libelous comments made by others on their service, not requiring them to remove said comments even after a claim has been filed. However, such comments can still make a blog’s comment area a very hostile place for others to join the conversation. Furthermore, repeating libel or taking sides in a discussion where libelous statements are being used could open you up to claims of your own.
How to Avoid It: The simplest solution is to keep the comments on track. People can talk about the topic at hand all they want, but talking about each other, especially in a hostile manner, should probably be forbidden. In short, disagree all you want, just don’t make it personal.
3. The Private Comment
Though we all have a choice as to how much personal information we reveal online, some people, even in comments, sometimes make those decisions for others. If someone in your comments posts private information about someone, that person could be held liable and so could you if you repeat it. There is an exception for private facts that are deemed “newsworthy”, at least in some locales but it can be difficult to know what meets that standard.
The problem with privacy law is that it varies wildly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. However, as with libel, you seem to be largely protected against invasion of privacy lawsuits should a commenter post something invasive to your site. However, the law is not clearly defined on what happens if you edit the comment and repeating it could put you in the same boat as the commenter.
This also applies if anyone visits your site impersonating another person.
How to Avoid It: The same rule applies here. You can easily avoid this if you keep your conversation from getting personal. Keep personal attacks off your site and you should be fine.
2. The Copyright Infringing Comment
Though most comments don’t involve copyrighted materials in any way and, most of those that do, do so in a way that is consistent with the principles of fair use, there are some commenters that do take it a bit too far at times.
If someone posts a song lyric to your site, link to an MP3 or some other item that is likely a copyright infringement, it could mean serious trouble. Though the DMCA protects qualifying hosts and “information location tools” (IE: search engines) from liability for copyrighted material on their service (so long as you expeditiously remove it after notification), you may lose that protection if you are aware of the infringement and do nothing or are seen to somehow be encouraging it.
But even if the DMCA does protect you, should the copyright holder speak with your host first, it could result in your site being shut down. It may seem drastic, but many hosts, especially shared hosts, just turn off a domain until a copyright infringement claim can be resolved.
If you want to avoid these legal and technical nightmares, its best to do what you can to keep these conflicts off of your site.
How to Avoid It: The solution is simple, if you see something that you suspect is copyright infringing, delete it and offer the submitter a chance to repost without the infringing work. A little bit of research should determine if the person likely has a license to post it and, if not, it is better to be safe than sorry, within reason.
1. The Spam Comment
This one goes without saying. No one wants spam comments. We already use comment filtering systems that are designed to prevent spam comments from going live and we run them religiously. However, if you look at what is actually being posted as spam to your site, it is easy to see how some of it could cause problems.
Between the scams, the gambling, the pornography and more, there’s a lot of content there with a lot of thorny legal issues too convoluted and complex to go over here. Though it is unlikely you could be held directly liable legally for anything posted without your permission or knowledge, allowing this kind of content on your site can have dire consequences to your search engine ranking (by making you appear to be a spam farm) and your readers (who will not want to have a conversation with so much garbage around).
Spam is somethingyou get a great deal of everyday, but it only takes a few to greatly impact your site.
How to Avoid It: Most sites can simply keep doing what they are doing. The spammers, for the most part, are looking for low-hanging fruit. Still, keep up with your anti-spam tools and remain vigilant about what spam does get through.
We all love comments on our sites, but there are some that we can’t afford to have around. Even though most of the comments we try to keep at bay are spam comments that don’t add anything to the conversation, even those who do can sometimes cross lines that bloggers can’t afford.
Keep your comments clean, avoid legal issues and keep the personal strife on your blog to a minimum, you can have a robust conversation without the worries or perils that often come with it.
So be smart about your blog comments and you’ll be rewarded with a rich, vibrant and safe dialog that will keep your visitors coming back.