Web 2.0 Comments, Notices and Liability
Does a corporation have legal notice of comments made on web social networking services? Arguably, public comments can be warnings to the maker of a product that the product is defective or hazardous or needs to be reported to regulatory authorities.
However, to stay cognizant of all relevant social media messages can be very difficult for a corporation, much more difficult than to stay aware of all comments that arrive via a customer service telephone line or via paper mail delivered to a postal address.
Some have feared that Web 2.0 services like Google’s Sidewiki allow consumers to submit informal comments about a brand that could have legal implications for the brand owner. Sidewiki allows web users to leave comments in relation to a web page -- comments that are not stored, published or controlled by the web page owner. The comments are stored by Google, and made visible to other Sidewiki users.
For example, when Sidewiki user Ralph visits the site http://legal-beagle.typepad.com, he can leave in Sidewiki the comment “insightful analysis of Internet law.” Then, when other Sidewiki users visit http://legal-beagle.typepad.com, they can see Ralph’s comment and can leave their own comments about that page in Sidewiki.
Here is a screenshot of a Sidewiki comment I left in relation to a press release on the US Department of Justice (law enforcement) web site:
Some have speculated that Web 2.0 technologies like Sidewiki can legally impact brand owners like pharmaceutical companies. Pharma companies have legal obligations and safety/compliance programs built around the information they know about “adverse events” related to their drugs (e.g., patient took medicine X and hair started to grow on her tongue) and “off-label” uses of their drugs (e.g., doctors saying, “you can use heart medicine X to grow hair on your bald head.”).
So the pharma companies have debated whether, with respect to Sidewiki as it points to their web pages, they should block it, monitor it, interact with it and so on.
In principle, my feeling is that no company can control or monitor everything that is said about its products on the web. Hence, it should be able to publish appropriate disclaimers/notices to the effect that it does monitor/sponsor online discussion at xyz domain, but it can’t and doesn’t try to keep up with all discussions everywhere. My feeling is that a notice published on the web can be broadly effective. Without necessarily being published in the Sidewiki service, such notices can be generally effective with respect to comments in Sidewiki.
Still, Google seems to have been listening to this debate. It has modified Sidewiki so that webmasters may, through Google’s Webmaster tools, publish general statements (like legal notices or disclaimers) that would appear as an official webmaster statement in Sidewiki for the web page in question. Screenshot:
Mr. Wright teaches Internet and eCommerce law at the SANS Institute.