Make sure your corporate web site is lawsuit-proof

By David Strom

(originally appeared in Network World, 3/1/99. Copyright 1999 by Network World/IDG Publications and used by permission.)

If you are your corporation's webmaster, your job has just gotten more complicated, thanks to a recent lawsuit from Planned Parenthood.

Earlier this month, the US district court in Oregon ruled that a web site run by the anti-abortionists Pathway Communications couldn't list names of doctors who performed abortions. The groups that ran the site also had to pay Planned Parenthood many millions of dollars in damages. Pathway's site is thoroughly disgusting, regardless of where you stand on the abortion issue. Icons of dripping blood, talk of "crimes against humanity" and calls "to record the name of every person working in the baby slaughter business" abound. These lists of doctors, lawyers and others include the following legend: "black font (working); greyed-out name (wounded); strikethrough (fatality)." The latter case shows Dr. Barnett Slepian, murdered last year in his home outside of Buffalo NY.

The first amendment to our constitution guarantees freedom of speech. In the past, threats to individuals have been excluded from this protection, rightly so in my opinion. No one should be allowed to shout "fire" in a crowded theater. But we get into trouble when we try to extend this analogy to the web. The Oregon ruling indicates that naming an individual on a hate site constitutes a threat, and others seem to agree. Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher has said that "Free speech does not give you the right to threaten to kill someone whether it be through the mail, in person or on the Internet." Fisher has his own lawsuit (still undecided at this writing) about another hate group publishing threats on the web.

Both the Oregon and Pennsylvannia cases spell trouble for corporate webmasters. Here's why.

Most corporations have more than one individual posting information to their webs. Few have any formal policy in place to educate these Internet authors as to what is and what isn't appropriate information to distribute. And it is getting stickier to determine what is and isn't appropriate. For example, one webmaster was fired several years ago because he included a link at the bottom of the corporate page to his personal site. The entire linked text was a single period at the end of a sentence.

But by and large, the vast majority of corporate web sites are thankfully far from the strum and drang of most hate sites. Your corporation probably doesn't incite anyone to take the law into their own hands, or call for anyone to be brought to justice, or post the home addresses of people it considers bad guys. That's great, but you need to take further steps if you want to avoid any nasty legal battles down the road. Here are some suggestions:

First, remind your web staff that anything they post can and will be held against your company legally. So make sure anyone who is allowed to post information to your site understands the difference between something that could be harmful or not. I am not saying that every line of HTML needs a legal review, but just a few common sense policies should help.

Second, have an explicit policy of what information is and isn't permitted on your site. Make sure you are clear about how personal information is displayed, and what external sites you intend to link to.

Third, have a regular schedule in terms of what pages get updated when, to make it easier for management to review these changes.

Finally make sure you have tight controls over who can update your site.

When I first heard about the ruling, I was initially elated to see the responsible organizations punished for distributing hate speech. My elation turned toward concern the more I thought about this case. As much as I detest these hate sites, I think this ruling has dire implications down the road for corporate webmasters, even if your content is considered quite bland. Eventually, someone will sue you for the information on your web site, and that is nasty business indeed.