An evening of presentations and discussion on Internet law may not sound gripping, but I'm really glad I went along the other day to an event organised by Lizzie Jackson of e-mint, and lawyers K&L Gates.
E-mint is a 500-strong association mainly for managers of online communities ... the people who host, moderate, encourage and occasionally police our behaviour when we get together in one place on the net. Anyone interested in online communities can join in. Since you might wonder, it's named after The Mint where a few people got together in 2000 for a drink and came up with the idea.
Lizzie has been around online communities forever (well, at least 10 years), leading the way at the BBC and currently doing a PhD on "hosted space" at the University of Westminster.
E-mint has played a large part in discussions about creating safe spaces for children on the Net, and has a partnership with CEOPS (The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Force). It's partly thanks to them we have codes of conduct and industry self-regulation rather than legislation on these and other issues.
Anyway, Lizzie met up with Paul Massey of K&L Gates, who offered to talk to e-minties about the risks and liabilities that hosts and managers of online communities may face, recent cases like the one between Viacom and YouTube/Google, copyright, terms and conditions for your website, when to take down offending content ... libel, defamation, obscenity, harrassment and much more. At first it looked as if it might be a Covent Garden pub's upstairs room get-together, but City hospitality prevailed, and we ended up with stacks of canapes and plenty of liquid refreshment at L&G Gates.
We all learned lots, with substantial presentations from Paul, his colleagues Dominic Bray and Sarah Stone, and Q and A after. I'm not a great fan of text-heavy Powerpoint, but they did give us great advice, and hand-outs. Will they be up on Slideshare, I wonder? That would be an additionally generous offering to the online community. And if there is a next time, maybe some chance to talk to each around tables, as in the excellent Gurteen Knowledge cafes.
Among the stories we heard was the one about a man in the Second Life virtual world suing another for copying and then selling his (virtual) sex bed. Then there was the case of the childcare expert threatening to shut down Mumsnet because of remarks by contributors.
One of the big issues for people hosting and facilitating online places is precisely the risk that community members will say something defamatory. If you just let people say what they like, there's a risk that objectionable content will be posted and viewed. However, if you do moderate, your involvement could open you up to action if something gets through.
This issue sparked some discussion on the e-mint mailing list under the heading Damned if we do and damned if we don't.
I asked at the meeting whether someone who sets up a group on Facebook could run the same risk, and it seems that is a possibility.
Apart from the interesting content, it seems to me that the event was a great example of the mutual benefit that can come from social media professionals meeting specialist advisers informally. The e-minties learned a lot from the lawyers, and the lawyers were able to get the latest buzz from a rapidly-moving field. And of course, when we hit that problem in Facebook or elsewhere we'll know where to go. On second thoughts, let's just be careful out there. The law isn't too clear in some area, and that means the potential for a lot of legal time on the clock. I'll dig out those handouts.