Topix Legal Win Bodes Well for Hyperlocals

News community site Topix scored a big victory — not only for itself but other hyperlocal news publishers — when a court in Georgia ruled that Federal law protected the company from a defamation claim over user-generated content.

David Hopkins filed a lawsuit against Topix and other parties for user-generated content that contained defamatory statements against Hopkins that appeared on the site, based on content published by a user.

In its Terms of Service, Topix provides: “We have no duty to pre-screen your content or the content of others, but we have the right to refuse to post or to edit submitted content.” Hopkins claimed that Topix breached its obligation by failing to pre-screen content that contained defamatory content.

Topix asserted that a federal law — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 — gave it immunity from defamation claims. The law provides that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”  The Court agreed with Topix in a decision issued on November 28, 2011.

The court pointed out that Topix expressly disclaimed liability for “any content that is provided or posted by you or others.”  That means Topix never agreed to assume liability for content posted by users. Plus, the immunity provided by federal law preempted any assurances that Topix provided in its Terms of Service over content.

This decision has significant benefits for hyperlocal news publishers. Invariably, some user may post comments that may not be complementary of another person. The Communications Decency Act provides publishers immunity from those comments, as long as the publisher was not directly involved in the creation of the content.

The decision also sends a message that publishers need not assure users that they are monitoring all content 24/7. The terms of service should reserve the right to monitor and remove content that it may deem inappropriate, but at the same time, the publisher should make clear that it does not have the obligation to monitor and remove any objectionable content at any time.

Brian Dengler is an attorney with Vorys Legal Counsel and journalist who covers legal issues in eMedia. He is a former vice-president of AOL, Inc., a former newspaperman, and an EMMY-winning TV journalist. He teaches eMedia management as an adjunct at Kent State University and is a former adjunct at Otterbein University.

  • Anonymous

    It is no victory at all. All it shows is the legislator are still out of touch. Topix allows libel, defamation, bullying, etc which is morally deplorable and is not, in many cases protected speech. What this means is Topix continues to be the worst cyberbullying site on the internet and while legally they may be protected, ethically they are without morals. It is incomprehensible that the site would not monitor its content (Even Formspring is doing more of that) and not require user registration. You can’t be a source for legit news and a gossip site both. The mere fact that this story is even “news” says it all.  Topix has five or six moderators for over 350,000 forums. My question is why do they have any moderators at all, if they believe anything should be allowed. Also I read a story about them wanting to become more political. Any politician that would advertise on a site that allows bullying would lose my vote and I think I speak for many when I say I would campaign my hardest to make sure they weren’t elected. Let’s stop defending immoral behavior.

  • Tom Foremski

    Surely, if you have people editing user content through staff editors or moderators, then you could be held responsible for what is published, you can’t claim a “I’m a platform” defense. Hyperlocals might not benefit from this ruling at all, unless they take a hands-off approach to what users publish but that is unlikely because of quality concerns. I can’t see how this ruling helps hyperlocals.

  • Larry

    All this means is Topix remains the trashiest site on the internet. I realize the “law” may protect them from liability but the forums are out of control on that site and Topix claim they are a source for news is a joke. There are tons of forums with no actual news on them. A reputable site is concerned with content. Topix clearly is not, you need some type of sign up such as Disqus and you have to have some moderation. While Topix may have some fans, it is generally a despised website and the company Technorati gave it the lowest rating possible for accuracy. Not exactly a good business model is it

  • Tell it like it is

    Victory for hyperlocals? A victory for injustice. Not one hyperlocal wants to function as Topix does. It is not sustainable.

    Your post does not dispute the defamation that happened in Georgia, it does not even begin to address, the pain and damage being caused to thousands of American’s from similar defamation. It does not address the damage to businesses being caused on Topix. It does not address the damage being done to the economic development of entire communities from Topix defamation.

    From Robert Peters, mayor of Little Falls, NY:

    “Peters said it has become such commonplace to log on to the Web site and see lashings out and total lies that it’s affecting the entire community. He said reputations have been tarnished on both personal and professional levels, and he’s afraid it will begin to affect the city’s economic development, too.”

    Since when do hyperlocals want to perform a disservice to the communities they cover? Is Streetfight seriously arguing to support this model?