Unprecedented Case? Facebook Pays Damages for Offensive User Comments

PC World
A man in Northern Ireland has successfully sued Facebook for £3,000 after offensive comments regarding the religion of his children appeared on the site. A High Court judge found the site responsible for the comments, despite the fact that they were posted by users of the site. So, does this set a new legal precedent for social media companies operating within the jurisdictions of Northern Ireland and, indeed, perhaps in lands beyond? Will they be required to protect all their users from all the abuse they receive through the sites? Or is the case somewhat more nuanced than that?

At first glance, the ruling itself is a complicated case of drawing lines on ambiguous topography. On the one hand, we might be inclined to think that users themselves - those posting offensive comments - should be held solely responsible for them. After all, surely sites like Facebook are just platforms for content, rather than creators of it (unless, of course, they're actually a media company, not a networking site...but let's not go there now).

On the other hand, though, we might consider such sites as having a duty of care when it comes to their users and, indeed, those who feature in the content which ultimately makes them money. They employ admins, they have algorithms to filter out bullying, and they've all been sued before for allowing abuse to appear and spread. Imagine, at the far end of the spectrum, a newspaper which printed endless slander and defamation without reprisal. We need some regulation in the press and, indeed, the wider public sphere (again, not calling Facebook a media company - we're not going there now, everybody relax).

Social media has been regulated across the UK for a long time. A couple of years ago, for example, Scotland made official its stance on how far social media users can speak their minds - claiming 'if it would be illegal to say it on the streets, it's illegal to say it online.' Most jurisdictions have a similar policy nowadays.

But, in this particular case - which sees a platform (of unspecified variety here, relax) under fire - is it true that, as The Times notes, 'If [the ruling] is not quashed on appeal the company could potentially have to upend its entire business model or face endless litigation'?

Well, in short, no. The ruling is actually somewhat narrower than it seems.

Firstly, the comments made toward J20 and his children were not deemed to be 'harassment.' Indeed, as the BBC reports, 'Mr Justice Colton said the comments were offensive and distasteful, but did not "cross the boundary between what is unattractive and unreasonable as opposed to what is oppressive and unacceptable".' 

What's actually under scrutiny is Facebook's sharing of personal information; which allowed the users posting abusive comments to identify J20's children and make offensive remarks about their religion

Now, whether future plaintiffs will be inclined to use 'data sharing' as shorthand for 'harassment' is another question. Still, the answer to that is probably also no; and even if they were to, it's unlikely Facebook would lose many such cases. 

Really, what's occurred here is a prod of the boundaries, facilitated greatly by public scrutiny of the case. Ruling Facebook liable hasn't opened a can of worms, but has rather probably closed one. If that seems somewhat arbitrary...that's law for ya! 

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