• What’s Use Got to Do with It?
  • September 30, 2010 | Authors: John P. Hutchins; Christopher A. Wiech
  • Law Firm: Troutman Sanders LLP - Atlanta Office
  • The recent anniversary of the 9/11 attacks was an emotional moment for America. As was widely covered in the news media, one Florida pastor, Terry Jones, planned to express his sentiments about September 11 by burning copies of the Koran. Jones’s plans created quite a stir and gained international attention. Some of that attention was due to Jones’s church website announcements regarding his plan to burn the Koran. Jones’s church, Dove World Outreach Center, based in Gainesville, Florida, operated two websites that were hosted by a web hosting company, Rackspace. (Web hosting companies like Rackspace provide server space and Internet connectivity to their clients so they can make their websites accessible via the World Wide Web.) One of the two websites operated by the church, and hosted by Rackspace, used the domain name “Islam is of the Devil,” which is also the name of a book authored by Jones.

    Just a few days before the planned Koran burning, Rackspace shut down the church’s websites. According to Rackspace, the websites’ content violated Rackspace’s acceptable-use policy, in particular its “hate speech” provisions. Rackspace maintains that its decision was based on its determination that the websites’ content violated the terms of the church’s contract with Rackspace, and Rackspace’s actions had nothing to do with free speech rights.

    Did Rackspace do the right thing? On a visceral level, your answer may depend on how you feel about the content in the first place. From a business perspective, though, Rackspace did what many hosting companies do - it received complaints about content on websites that it was hosting; it reviewed the content in conjunction with its acceptable-use policy governing its relationship with its client; it concluded that the content violated the hate-speech provision; and as a result, it took affirmative steps to shut down distribution of the violative content. Is this “big brother” run amok, or is it simply something Rackspace did in its own corporate best interest and within its rights?

    Hosting providers, and other publishers of web content, may in some instances face the real threat of liability from permitting arguably offensive content. Moreover, the consequences of allowing such content can often be tragic, such as the well-known cases of cyberbullying on social media sites which have led to teen suicide. Web publishers may open themselves to exposure by doing nothing. But, then again, the more aggressive a web publisher is about policing offensive content, the more it might increase its exposure when something slips through the cracks.

    And it’s not just web hosting companies that need to be concerned. Everyone seems to have a website these days - from high school students to the Fortune 500. And many websites allow for user-generated content to be added. Just about any website, like this one, which allows user comments falls into that category.

    So it should matter to you what content is being added to websites, whether you host them or operate them. In a perfect world, you could police all of the content on your website as soon as it is posted. But that’s not realistic for large organizations with a large presence on the web. Rackspace has more than a 100,000 customers, for example, and those customers are operating untold numbers of websites with huge volumes of content.

    A solid acceptable-use policy, along with some regular and systematic policing, are tools that should be used together. The policy gives you the flexibility to remove content when you deem it necessary, or to choose to leave it up. In either instance, you are managing your exposure to liability. When used effectively, these tools can make the Internet a safer for everyone, including your company.