Threat of Lawsuits on Social Networking Sites

Meeting the Needs by John AdsitOne of the dangers we face in using social networking sites is our lack of control over them, their content and the way participants interact. Because the law on this is still emerging, we face the potential for unknown legal repercussions. An example of this has just come about as a social networking site devoted to scuba diving,, has been sued, along with over 100 of the people who post on it, for content that would be considered tame in most social networking sites.

In quick summary, an accurate story was posted about the death of a diver and the illness of the rest of the group of divers, presumably from contaminated air in their tanks. Discussion followed predictable paths. Without going into too much detail (in part because I am not sure what the ramifications may be for me), the party identified as responsible for the accident, which occurred in the Maldives, is suing the American-based discussion forum for lost business as a result of the bad publicity. The owner of the discussion board, the largest of its kind in the world, estimates that his cost of defending against the suit will be anywhere from $10,000-$100,000.

gavel hitting a table

The discussion threads involved are about two years old, but they are still up for viewing if anyone is interested (thread 1 and 2). They contain a wide variety of opinions from participants around the world, some of whom were involved in the actual incident and gave first-hand accounts. These discussions are very long, but a review of them will show little, if anything, that would surprise veterans of online discussion forums.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that this forum uses a number of volunteer staff members to help maintain the site and hold posters to staying within the terms of service of the site. I am one of those staff members. I had no participation whatsoever in the threads related to this incident and did not, in fact, even know of the situation until the lawsuit was filed.

Will the suit succeed? Law in this regard is emerging, and nothing seems clear. Whatever the possibilities, at this moment over 100 people are scrambling to respond to that suit. Even if the suit does not succeed, their lives will have been significantly interrupted. If it does succeed, the ramifications for social networking in general are huge. If a social networking site with many thousands of participants can be held liable for the comments of its participants, even if the staff successfully keeps posted comments within commonly accepted terms of service, what will that do for these sites in the future?

For educators, what will happen if we encourage in any way the use of such sites for academic purposes and our students are sued? Will we need to make sure that our students post within certain clear guidelines to avoid being held accountable ourselves? I offer no clear ideas of my own in this regard, and I hope this will spark some good thinking by those more familiar with these kinds of things than I.

3 Responses

  1. I have to say that our legal system has problems. This suit, based on your commentary, has no merit. Yet, the discussion board owner must come up with tens of thousands of dollars just to survive.

    Not all countries have this unfortunate situation.

    We allow two things to happen in our civil law. In the first instance, a wealthy entity can sue a poor one out of business. In the second, a small entity cannot afford to sue a large one that does it harm, unless exceptional circumstances apply.

    Based on little expertise, i believe that the plaintiff is not truly seeking damages but to discredit the board and to shut it down. I suspect that the defendant’s pockets are not so deep as to justify the suit on the basis of monetary gain.

    All of this does send a chill across the Internet.

  2. Hi John,

    In the Protect our Right to Post: ScubaBoard Legal Defense fund thread started today on, ringmod65 writes to another person whose post apparently disappeared:

    I highly suggest you consult your counsel before continuing to post in this – or any related – thread.
    Your response to an inquiry regarding the plaintiff’s name, address, email address, place of employment and telephone number is extremely troubling as this may (will) be construed as a threat of retaliation. It certainly isn’t going to make the suit any easier to defend. If the plaintiff’s representation is not monitoring every new post regarding the suit on this board they are incompetent.
    Please stop digging.

    This seems to be sound advice, so I won’t start digging further here asking you further questions about the lawsuit either. ringmod65 also gives useful info about the factors at stake, and a reference to the Libel, defamation part of the Wikipedia article on Online service provider law for precedents, btw.

    Re educators’ liability if they use social sites for academic purposes: if the students are of age, aren’t they the ones responsible for what they post? And if they aren’t, then educational institutions/authorities usually have rather drastic rules about using such tools – usually simply forbidding their use nowadays.

    Back in 2000, when a colleague in another part of Switzerland and I decided to use a “MSN community” for correspondence between our middle-school classes, our relevant authorities had never heard of online forums and suchlike, and hence didn’t have a policy about these tings. So we translated the whole **** MSN TOU (only in English back then), printed them, asked all the parents sign a statement that they had read and understood them before authorizing their kids to create a log-in.

    The present no-no policy simplifies life for teachers, but it deprives younger students of an opportunity to use these social tools with adult guidance.

  3. […] in any particular jurisdiction to minimize liability? Any other tips? This article was scary: Reply With Quote   + Reply to Thread « Previous Thread | […]

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