In Feb. 18 Issue
After receiving what he called "dozens of calls and complaints from Kentuckians," Attorney General Jack Conway recently decided to take on Topix.com, the popular online message board.
He said that interactive message board is not doing what it should with abusive posts that violate the Web site's terms of service, and is doing something it shouldn't.
His office reported that complaint calls regarding allegedly false and defamatory information had been posted on the website. He said Topix's measures to remove the abusive posts are ineffective unless consumers agree to pay a $19.99 fee.
Conway, along with another state's attorney general sent a letter to the company's CEO Chris Tolles.
"Abusive or negative posts can have a devastating impact on youth. Tragically, many teenagers today turn to suicide as a way to escape abuse or cyberbullying on the Internet," said General Conway. "I have heard from parents, consumers and officials from across Kentucky who have complained about the outrageous comments that are allowed to be posted and not policed by Topix.
However, mean online comments could be protected speech according to some.
Richard Labunski, a journalism and telecommunications professor at the University of Kentucky, says federal law grants immunity to Web sites that publish comments submitted by other users.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 provides broad immunity and federal courts have upheld it, Labunski said.
Unless the comments include profanity or obscenity, there's little Conway can do, Labunski said. "I'm not sure where these efforts are going to lead."
Locally the company's for-profit message board is doing something of a bustling business between the few political discussions and milder fare are the discussions of the sexual antics, real or imagined, of named individuals in the county.
A large portion of the Topix.com forum is based on abusive and insulting comments, Conway said.
Although Topix.com may be immune from legal action, Labunski said Conway and other attorneys general could sue the individual users who post the comments.
However, that's not very productive, he said.
"It costs a lot of money to pursue a libel suit," Labunski said. "The real problem is finding out who posted the information."
It's not easy to subpoena records and identify anonymous users, he said.
"The courts have adopted very tough standards before the name of someone will be turned over," Labunski said. "We also have a long history of appreciation and reverence for being able to speak freely and anonymously."
A Lexington attorney filed a lawsuit over comments posted on a newspaper's Web site last month.
The Lexington Herald-Leader reports that attorney Astrida Lemkins filed suit Monday against unnamed defendants who posted the comments on Kentucky.com. Lemkins says in the lawsuit that the comments were false and defamatory.
She has subpoenaed the Herald-Leader to produce the e-mail addresses of any individual using the screen name that posted the comment.
The newspaper said the comments had been removed and the user name blocked from posting.
Online threats made several years ago against a local official's family were traced to their source and the person who had posted them was taken into custody by officials, proving that individuals who believe they are anonymously sending things online can be found.
Although charging $19.99 in order to have questionable comments reviewed does make Topix.com appear insensitive, there's nothing illegal about the policy.
Chris Tolles, CEO of Topix.com, said the Web site provides a valuable service to lots of users in Kentucky.
Tolles also said he was surprised to learn of the investigation from a reporter and not from Conway's office. He said he thinks Topix.com does a pretty good job of allowing users to have discussions on local issues.
Topix.com is based in Palo Alto, Calif., and allows users to comment on news from more than 50,000 sources.
It's a joint venture of the Gannet, McClatchy and Tribune media companies.
This story compiled with the assistance of the State-Journal's Paul Glasser through the KNCS.