The operator of the Australian discussion forum ZGeek has been named as a defendant in a defamation suit for material posted by ZGeek users to a thread about a 9/11 conspiracy theory. Another forum is apparently also named as a defendant in the claim.
The plaintiffs are apparently seeking $42 Million in consequential damages, claiming that they lost a film deal as a result of criticism of the conspiracy theory in the discussion fora.
What makes this claim stranger is that the owner of the site states that he complied with earlier takedown notices sent by the plaintiffs’ lawyers about the alleged defamatory material.
These types of claims are very worrying for the high levels of uncertainty that they impose on forum operators. In the US, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act essentially immunises forum operators from defamation claims like this one, but no such strong protection exists in Australia. This lack of certainty effectively provides an incentive for those who feel aggrieved by posts on a public forum to seek damages against the operators of the forum, even where the operators have complied by removing the allegedly defamatory material.
The website operator may well have a defence under Australian law, but there is still significant uncertainty as to what is required of a forum moderator in Australia. We lack solid immunities and appropriate notice & takedown procedures, which means that operators of public fora can never be certain as to their potential liability – something that significantly harms freedom of expression in Australia.
We have not yet seen the text of the complaint. It appears that the ZGeek community has rallied behind its (non-profit) administrator, and have collectively raised enough money to respond to the allegations. We will be following this case very closely in the future.