Friday, 9 March 2012

Why Twitter, Youtube, AirBnB and CouchSurfing are going to block Australian users

Australian website owners are liable for everything their users post

In 2004, Joseph Gutnick successfully sued Dow Jones for publishing a defamatory article about him online (case notes). He got $540,000 out of them. This is despite the fact that Dow Jones is a US company.  This caused quite a stir because Dow Jones assumed they were operating under US law, which explicitly protects online publishers from
being sued for innocent dissemination (where a user posts something defamatory or dangerous) under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act

Think about what this means.. If Gutnick could sue a US company for publishing defamatory content that people in Australia read over the internet, Australian websites are basically fucked. Every person who starts any kind of web 2.0 website that allows users to add content, is responsible for every single post their users make.

Twitter is getting sued in Australia
You can understand why Dow Jones could reasonably have been sued - after all they had some editorial control over what gets published in Barrens Online. But what about Twitter, a service that prides itself on promoting freedom of speech? Anyone can post anything they like and that's the great thing about it.

But that might soon change. Joshua Megitt is about to have a crack at Twitter in an Australian court because Marieke Hardy allegedly made a defamatory comment towards him using Twitter.

No website
If Mr Megitt is successful, litigaton sharks are going to descend into a feeding frenzy. No website anywhere in the world will be safe. You can easily imagine a litigious arsehole in the search for a quick buck creating a fake identity on a big online newspaper, posting a defamatory comment about himself and then suing the newspaper for 'publishing' the comment.

Online collaborative consumption services are liable for anything that goes wrong
The lack of any 'innocent dissemination' provision means that online collaborative consumption services like my ridesharing project CoCoRide are fully liable if anything goes wrong. If someone has a car accident and the passenger was in the car because they met the driver through CoCoRide, they can sue us.

I predict AirBnB will soon block Australian users
This isn't going to stop me (but I am going to incorporate ASAP to stop the rest of the team from getting sued) but I reckon this is a massive barrier to the takeup of collaborative consumption projects in Australia. I wouldn't be surprised if collab consumption websites like AirBnB and CouchSurfing block Australians from using their service because the legal risk is just too great and they're actually worth suing unlike CoCoRide.

We need to change the law
This legal environment is unworkable. Web 2.0 sites can't be responsible for every single post their users make. We need an 'innocent dissemination' statute.

Do you care? Take action
I've started a petition on Put your name down. It takes less than a minute.

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