From the March 2009 issue of Startups

Q: I am setting up a social networking website for people who enjoy and participate in a certain type of extreme sport. I'm a little concerned that I will not be able to control what people are saying on the site. Can I get into legal trouble because of something someone says in a blog post? What about an "official" blog I will be writing as part of this site?

A: Generally, just as newspaper publishers are not liable for statements made in letters to the editor, a website owner is not responsible for libel, invasion of privacy or other legal violations in Web 2.0 postings unless the owner actively participates in the wrongdoing. For example, if someone posts a blog entry accusing a certain athlete of "using steroids for years," and your online editor responds by saying, "Yeah, everybody knows that," you have inserted yourself into the discussion, and there may be some liability for you there if the statement isn't 100 percent true. To avoid liability for Web 2.0 postings:

  • Prepare a warning notice to users noting their potential liability for things they say and do on your site, and make sure users have to "click through" that notice each time they log on.
  • Make sure your user's agreement clearly states you do not "approve or endorse" any posting on the site.
  • Preview all postings so you can screen and block really harmful or offensive blog content.
  • Tell users you will remove any blog post if you become aware of a potential legal problem.
  • Avoid participating in discussion threads unless absolutely necessary (for example, to correct statements of fact).

    What about the official blog you will be writing as part of this site? Generally, you want your blog to be as colorful, compelling and cool as possible so it attracts a lot of search engine traffic, but if you go too far, there's a risk that someone will sue you. Here are the basic rules:
  • Do not say anything bad about anyone unless you can back it up 100 percent with hard facts (and state the facts in your blog posting).
  • Do not say anything about someone that would really embarrass him if it became known, even if true.
  • Do not quote from anyone else unless you have the author's written or e-mail permission to quote him or the quote is only a few words long and you attribute it to the author, along with a link to his website or blog.