The days when Internet users – whether on blogs, websites, message boards, or social media sites – were entitled to anonymity as a default setting could soon be a thing of the past.

We have been steadily moving towards a more transparent Internet for the last couple of years, with Facebook’s pioneering use of real names in place of handles — a practise which was quickly adopted by Twitter and Google. Signing in to other websites via Connect over these services means that what people say elsewhere is permanently attached to their real identity. Increasingly this could lead to more civil discourse online. But there are still many part of the Internet where anonymity reigns and where people hassle, threaten and potential defame others.

In the UK a law is currently being debated which will force ISPs to give up the personal data of users who threaten others over the internet. This will have great implications for criminal cases alleging harassment or stalking. Previously it has been the privacy of users that was protected at all costs by service providers. That is set to change in favour of the rights of those who are violated by users hiding behind anonymity.

In the United States, publishers (like those of social media sites and news outlets) are protected from defamation and libel litigation on behalf of anyone defamed by comments left by users under the laws set out in the Communications Decency Act. In Australia, the legalities are unclear, but administrators and page moderators are strongly encouraged to take a pro-active stance in policing their comment sections, especially on social media sites with the assumption that legal responsibilities ultimately lie with them.

Page administrators are strongly advised to read this post from Mark Pearson at Jourlaw:

Facebook fan pages are a legal time bomb for corporations, particularly in Australia where the courts have yet to rule definitively on the owner’s liability for the comments of others.

Though it might be more time-consuming on highly trafficked pages, deciding to check the pre-approval option in your page’s Facebook settings could well save you in the long run if it means catching potentially defamatory content before it is automatically posted and left unchecked over the weekend as per Mark’s example in the post.

Yet at the same time (as Mark discusses), in the eyes of the law you are held to a different standard if you mistakenly publish a comment that is defamatory, compared to deleting it when you get back to work on Monday. So there is still a significant amount of discussion about how far your duty of care might extend online.

Managing your brand’s reputation extends to all aspects of publishing responsibilities. Ensure that you know what they are, and instate protocols for how to manage them effectively.