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Defamation and the Internet: Questions of Sysop Liability

Internet defamation law is complicated by the tricky question of sysop liability. In defamation law for print and broadcast media, liability is sometimes considered to extend beyond the defamer himself (for instance, the writer of a libelous newspaper column) to the "publisher" of the material (in the previous example, the newspaper running the column). The idea of holding publishers responsible for libelous material in traditional media has been thoroughly tested and defined in court; there are clear precedents for determining who is liable for defamatory statements in these media. On the Internet, however, such issues are considerably more nebulous.

Defining the Sysop

A sysop, or system operator, is defined as a person or organization who in some way manages the publication/distribution of material on-line. The most common example is the operator of a bulletin board where users are permitted to post messages which can then be read by other users. Such bulletin boards may be exclusive to a limited group of subscribers, or they may be accessible to anyone on the Internet. The exact role of the sysop can range from merely providing technical support for the posting and reading of messages to carefully reading and editing all published submissions. It is this disparity in the functions of individual sysops that leads to questions about the extent of a sysop's liability in individual cases.

One view of a sysop is as a common carrier, much the way telephone companies are legally viewed. Just as telephone companies attempt no control over what information is communicated across their wires, and are not held legally liable for the content of such communication, this view of a sysop indicates that the sysop provides a forum for any message the user wishes to communicate and is therefore not liable for the content of such a message. For such a definition to apply, the sysop would have to take no editorial or censorial control whatsoever over any postings; only then can he be considered a common carrier. An example of this might be the host of a live-chat room who in no way limits access to this chat room or monitors the conversations which take place therein.

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