Yes, as a website owner, you are liable for things people post on your website – also know as “user generated content”.
By letting your website visitors post images, content, comments or contribute to your website, you may be opening yourself up to claims or headaches from issues you are not even aware of. Permitting website visitors to freely contribute, could potentially be seen as ‘enabling’ or ‘permitting’ the distribution of any offensive or illegal content. Even if you were not aware that this type of material was on your website – you may be liable.
What can I be liable for?
There are a variety of things that could be a breach of the law or an infringement of rights that you may find you are liable for. For example, some users or contributors to your website may be posting defamatory or offensive comments. If you do not address this and there are complaints, particularly by the person(s) who are the subject of the defamatory remarks, you could find yourself in the middle of an expensive lawsuit.
Other users may contribute photos, images or content which breach the copyright of another person. This means they have posted content which belongs to someone else without their consent or authorisation. Normally, if you take down the content as soon as you receive notice of the infringement, the content owner will take no further action. But in some instances they may seek to claim for profits they believe you have received or for loss or damage they may have suffered as a result of the breach.
Advertisements or affiliate promotions on your website could contain false and misleading claims. You will not be directly liable but may be seen to be enabling these promotions if you do not heed requests by regulators to take them down. Alternatively, you may find that some of the customers of your advertisers may complain to you if the goods or services are not adequate, are not received or do not meet the quality advertised.
How can I protect myself and my website?
First, the best way to avoid some of these additional headaches is to ensure you have good Terms & Conditions and a strong Disclaimer on your website, ensuring that visitors agree to only use the information they read at their own risk.
Second, have users, contributors and advertisers on your website agree to specific Terms which state that they will be solely responsible for any claims in respect of anything they post or advertise. You also need to be clear in these Terms that you can remove any offending material, at anytime and at your discretion.
Third, ensure you have compliance measures in place. This means you need to have someone regularly checking, reviewing and monitoring all posts and content contributed by users to your website.
In summary, ensure you are aware of the potential issues when you allow others to use and contribute to your website. It can be a great way to generate interest and attract visitors to your website, but make sure you have these protections in place first!