What if newspapers were liable for content published by users? This could happen if the US Congress takes away the protections of Section 230, if newspapers continue to encourage anonymous - and abusive - comments.
Section 230 for Internet postings protects providers and users of an "interactive computer service" that publishes information provided by others.
"Section 230 is important to our industry. It gives us a greater latitude in creating community than we would have without such protections. Losing that protection would be a serious blow to our audience growth prospects," write journalist and media blogger Howard Owens.
However, as many newspapers open up online comments with little incentive for users to register or provide real identification, or with insufficient guardrails, they are potentially jeopardizing their Section 230 protection.
Newspaper consultant Mark Potts offers tips to promote healthy online interaction, in light of Philly.com's recent (re)opening of comments, after having shut them down at the end of last year.
"Anytime a newspaper has problems with comments, it doesn't take long to figure out why: It happens because the site managers allowed anonymity, or they didn't think to employ a profanity filter, or they didn't put "report abuse" buttons on the comments to let readers self-police the feature."
Potts also warns of excessive moderation, citing The New York Times, which screens every single comment editorially, but this can become a huge cost, especially considering that "99.9 percent of comments are fine if you have the proper protections in place."
Philly.com has established an array of new protections to safeguard it from abusive comments, including:
- Required registration with a confirmable email address.
- Unique usernames, preferably real names.
- Automated profanity filters.
- "Report Abuse" buttons that enable the community to police abusive comments.
- An explicit commenting policy for all readers.
- Enabling comments a story-by-story basis. Some items and themes, such as immigration or race, will systematically lead to abusive reactions.
- Don't moderate all comments but react swiftly when any abuse is reported.