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Interweb: Web sites not liable for posts by others

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Not baseball-related, but apropos nonetheless.

The California state supreme court handed down a ruling today that ostensibly gives website operators carte blanche to publish whatever defamatory content they wish, provided they are actually just reprinting someone elses defamatory content. A woman in San Diego was sued by two doctors for reprinting an e-mail that accused one of said doctors of stalking a Canadian radio producer and included scathing missives -- allegedly false ones -- aimed at both doctors. The decision is a huge victory for freedom of online expression, but it also puts added emphasis on self-regulation.

Ilena Rosenthal had technology juggernauts Amazon.com, Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft, eBay and America Online in her corner, obviously aware that their own collective asses could be exposed to libel suits should the court have ruled in favor of the doctors. This case is of particular interest to me because I operate two web sites that are heavily community-driven and I am always aware of the potential for someone other than myself to publish content that wasn't intended to be published.

While I am a strong advocate for the freedoms of expression and information, I applaud this ruling with a grain of trepidation, because in the back of my mind I fear that it may set a precedent that could open the floodgates for libelous loopholes of all sorts. Let's say that I wanted to unleash a torrent of expletives, slander and false accusations about a particular ballplayer. What's to stop me from writing an anonymous e-mail via any number of freely-available internet e-mail providers (Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, to name a few), address it to one of my legitimate e-mail accounts, and include said expletives, slander, etc. I could presumably then publish that e-mail on a website, crediting said anonymous source.

I'm not suggesting that this ruling will invite a widespread deterioration of respect and common decency across the internet. Just that it could, and we would all be the worse for it. As it stands, I am pleased that this case would seem to protect myself and other webmasters whose good intentions are often at risk of exploitation at the hands of ill-intentioned trolls and the like. A win for us, but I'm sure this isn't the last we have heard of the "freedom of online expression".