Content: kinds of illegality

Submitted by
Alasdair Taylor
12th February 2008

The publication of website content – whether textual, audio, video, or other content – can be unlawful in two main ways. It can breach the criminal law; and it can give rise to civil liability.  Breaches of the criminal law may result in prosecution, and a successful prosecution may lead to a fine or even imprisonment. 

Civil liability is different. Where content gives rise to civil liability, the person (or company or other organisation) that has suffered as a result of the publication may have a right to bring proceedings. The remedies in such proceedings will usually be damages (or an account of profit) and/or an injunction.

A successful claimant will also expect most of their legal costs to be met by an unsuccessful defendant.

Examples of criminal (or potentially criminal) content include:

  • Obscene or indecent material
  • Material published in contempt of court
  • Material published in breach of data protection, racial or religious hatred, or official secrets legislation

Examples of content that may give rise to civil liability include:

  • Defamatory material
  • Material infringing another person’s copyright (or other intellectual property rights)
  • Material infringing another person’s rights of confidence or privacy

Those responsible for moderating internet forums, blog comments or other website features involving user generated content should be at least passingly familiar with each of these areas of potential liability.

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