Who do you think is responsible for web content?

Out-Law News | 17 May 2004 | 12:00 am | 2 min. read

Less than one third of UK internet users recognise that responsibility for unlawful on-line content lies with the person who put it there, according to a survey conducted on behalf of ISPA, the UK's trade association for ISPs.

The study, carried out by ICM Research, highlights concerns that internet users do not understand their on-line responsibilities, with 30% of respondents identifying ISPs as being responsible for the presence of content that may lead to civil disputes such as defamation and copyright infringements.

According to the survey, fewer than 30% of UK internet users recognise that this responsibility lies with the person posting the content, rather than ISPs, which are in general legally protected so long as they take action to remove illegal and unlawful content as soon as they are notified of its existence.

Jessica Hendrie-Liaño, Chair of the ISPA Council warned:

"The law recognises those that post words, images, audio and video files – whether on web sites, discussion forums or even using e-mail – as having the same responsibility as publishers. Internet users must understand that they bear responsibility for the content they place on-line."

The survey also throws light on how internet users react when they find illegal or unlawful content on-line. Thirteen percent of respondents would do nothing if they found something on the internet that they thought was illegal – such as child pornography. Men were more than three times more likely to do nothing about illegal content than women.

Twenty-one percent of respondents said that they would show unlawful content to other people, while almost half said that they would report suspicious content to their ISP. Only 26% of respondents would surf the internet to find the most appropriate organisation to report potentially unlawful content.

But ISPA points out that ISPs are not qualified, sufficiently authorised or resourced to decide on the legal status of all the material on the internet. This, says ISPA, is the job of the Government or the judiciary – a fact that only 29% of survey respondents recognised.

Some material is clearly unlawful and easy to spot, and ISPA urges users finding instances of images depicting child abuse or UK hosted obscene or racist material to refer it to internet safety body the Internet Watch Foundation [www.iwf.org.uk].

But unlawful content also includes other less obvious material – such as instances of defamation, infringement of copyright and other intellectual property rights, criminally racist or sexist content – and assessing the legal status of such content is very difficult for the internet industry.

The issue is governed by the UK E-Commerce Regulations that came into force in August 2002. However, ISPA says the Regulations stopped short of introducing clear and effective procedures for removing unlawful content, especially in less clear-cut cases, and, according to the ISP body, further clarification is needed to set out the rights and responsibilities of service providers in this area.