High Court ruling against Facebook over sex offender post shows media must act promptly on take-down requests

Media websites would do well to heed a recent decision by the Northern Ireland high court about the way Facebook responded to a take-down request.

The case involved a convicted sex offender – known as CG – who settled in a town in Northern Ireland after being released in prison.

A Facebook user published details about him on a public page under the heading "Keeping our Kids Safe from Predators 2". They included his identity, details of his family and his previous criminal convictions, and a number of threats.

The man's solicitors contacted Facebook and asked it to remove the post. Facebook finally took it down three weeks later. During that time, it attracted a number of Likes and a string of insults and threatening comments from Facebook users.

In the High Court, the social media site defended its actions using the Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002. This is the law that  gives media websites immunity from prosecutions over unmoderated illegal comments on their message boards.

Facebook said it wasn't obliged to take down the post because CG's solicitors didn't provide a its url, or sufficent details about it. It quoted a regulation which absolves the site from liability if they … "did not have actual knowledge of unlawful activity or information".

But the High Court rejected Facebook's argument. It ruled that Facebook had sufficient information to realise that the post was unlawful. Mr Justice Girvan said: "The only efficacious remedy was to remove all the postings.

He added: "Facebook has considerable resources at its disposal and does not require to have spelled out to it on each occasion with inappropriate precision the particular laws of the UK which are in issue and which are being contravened.

"It can also be assumed that the they know that harassing and threatening violence against sex offenders together with attempts to publicise exactly where the sex offender lives are also unlawful being the misuse of private information and contrary to public policy."

The lesson for media who run unmoderated messageboards is clear. Yes, you have imunity from prosecution under the EC  Regulations. But that immunity may fail if you don't respond quickly to take-down requests about posts that involve breaches of the law.

Cleland Thom is author of the Election legal guide for journalists

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