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Date: Mon, 23 Apr 90 17:57:50 PDT From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Lang Zerner) Message-Id: 9004240057.AA09346@khayyam.EBay.Sun.COM To: ptownson@gaak.LCS.MIT.EDU Subject: Defamation Liability of Sysops article Status: R
D E F A M A T I O N L I A B I L I T Y O F C O M P U T E R I Z E D B U L L E T I N B O A R D O P E R A T O R S A N D P R O B L E M S O F P R O O F
John R. Kahn CHTLJ Comment Computer Law Seminar Upper Division Writing February, 1989
D E F A M A T I O N L I A B I L I T Y O F C O M P U T E R I Z E D B U L L E T I N B O A R D O P E R A T O R S A N D P R O B L E M S O F P R O O F
John R. Kahn CHTLJ Comment/Upper Division Writing/Computer Law Seminar
A computer user sits down at her personal computer,
turns it on, and has it dial the number of a local computerized
bulletin board service (BBS) where she has been exchanging
opinions, information, electronic mail, and amicable
conversation with other users. Upon connecting with the BBS, she
enters a secret "password", presumably known only to herself and
to the bulletin board operator, so as to gain access to the
To her surprise, she finds herself deluged with lewd
electronic mail from complete strangers and hostile messages
from persons with whom she believed she was on friendly terms.
The messages read: "Why did you call me a worthless son-of-a —-
- yesterday? I really thought we could be friends, but I guess I
was wrong"; "Hey, baby, I liked your fetish you were telling me
about yesterday: call me at home, or I'll call YOU"; and, "Why
didn't you get around to telling me about your venereal disease
sooner?". Yet our user has not called this BBS in weeks and has
never made any of these statements. Dismayed and angered, the
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 2
user comes to realize that she is the victim of computerized
bulletin board abuse.
A personal computer hobbyist (hereafter "SYSOP") who
operates a computerized bulletin board system notices a rash of
heated arguments, profanity and complaints being reported to him
by users on what had been a forum for the peaceful exchange of
ideas. Investigating the complaints, he discovers that
previously responsible users have suddenly and
uncharacteristically been leaving insulting, rude and false
messages about other users on the bulletin board. One user is so
enraged about a public message accusing her of sexual
misadventures that she is threatening to sue the computer
hobbyist in libel for having permitted the message to appear.
The SYSOP realizes that both he and his subscribers have
suffered computerized bulletin board abuse.
The aggravating force behind both the above situations
is most likely a third user (known hereafter as "the
masquerader") who maliciously exploits both his computer
knowledge and his access to BBSes. Since the masquerader has
discovered the password and name of the regular user, and uses
them to access bulletin boards, he appears for all intents and
purposes to be that regular user. The computer thus believes it
has admitted a legitimate subscriber to its database when it has
in fact given almost free reign to a reckless hacker. The
masquerader, posing as another legitimate user, is then free to
portray that user in whatever light he pleases and also to
harass other users of the bulletin board.
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 3
When validated users later discover that someone else
has been impersonating them, they invariably cancel their
subscriptions to that BBS and often bring a defamation action
against its SYSOP for the smearing of their good names.
Conversely, the SYSOP, in an effort to avoid liability,
reluctantly engages in monitoring each and every piece of
information posted daily by hundreds of users. If the SYSOP
chooses instead to stop running his BBS altogether, another
efficient and valuable forum for ideas is lost.
What sort of defamation action may be maintained by the
wrongfully disparaged user? Is the computerized bulletin board
offered by the SYSOP subject to the stricter self-scrutiny of
newspapers, or does it operate under some lesser standard? How
may the initial party at fault - the masquerader - be held
accountable for his computerized torts?
The scope of this Comment will be to examine the
defamation liability of computerized BBS operators and
evidentiary proof issues that arise in tracing computerized
defamation to its true source. Other possible Tort causes of
action - intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion
of privacy, trespass to chattels - are not addressed. It is
assumed throughout that the plaintiff is a private person and
that the issues involved are not matters of "public interest" as
defined in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.1
Computerized BBSes exist as a quick, easy and efficient
way to acquire and exchange information about the entire
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 4
spectrum of interests.2 The growing popularity of these
electronic forums was demonstrated in a recent study which
numbered BBSes at more than 3,500 nationwide.3 The size and
complexity of computerized BBSes range from relatively simple
programs, run on privately-owned microcomputers with a few
hundred subscribers, to vast, multi-topic database systems with
nationwide lists of subscribers and operated for profit.4
The process of reaching, or "accessing" one of these
bulletin boards is quite simple: all that is required is a
computer, a computer program that allows the computer to
communicate over the phone lines, and a "modem" (a device which
converts the computer's electrical signals into acoustic
impulses, defined infra).5 Once she has accessed the BBS, the
caller is free to trade useful non-copyrighted computer
programs, exchange ideas on a host of topics, post electronic
mail for later reading by others, and much more.6 The ease with
which most BBSes may be accessed and the wealth of interests to
be found there ensure that they will continue to be important
sources of information and discourse.
However, the speed and efficiency of computerized BBSes
also subject them to serious, wide-ranging civil and criminal
abuse. Recently a young computer user paralyzed several major
computer systems across the nation by sending a harmful computer
program (or "worm") to them over telephone lines. The worm
quickly replicated itself in the computers' memories and thus
decreased their output capacities.7 Further, certain computer
abusers (known as "hackers") use the power of the computerized
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 5
forum to ply illegal copies of copyrighted programs, bilk
hundreds of millions of dollars annually from credit card and
phone companies, and to wrongfully access others' data files.8 A
minority of other BBSes exist mainly to circulate racist
What is more, it now appears that the ancient tort of
defamation is actively being practiced through the use of
computerized BBSes.10 Due to the almost ethereal way
computerized BBSes operate - one person may conveniently leave
an electronic message for others to respond to at their leisure
and there is no need for the parties to converse directly or
even to know each other11 - the risk of detection when the BBS
is abused is lower than that for defamation practiced in the
print media.12 Difficulties arise with identifying the true
party at fault and with authenticating the computer records as
evidence of the defamation.13 Adding to this problem is an
uncertainty in the laws concerning the appropriate liability of
SYSOPs for defamatory messages on their BBSes of which they were
The following are brief definitions of some important
technical terms connected with electronic BBSes:
SYSOP: An abbreviation for "System Operator", this is
the individual generally responsible for organizing information
and for trouble-shooting on a computerized bulletin board. On
larger bulletin boards covering hundreds of topics, several
SYSOPS may be in charge of maintaining information contained in
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 6
separate discrete fields.15 But when the BBS is privately owned
and operated, a single SYSOP may very well oversee all aspects
of the board's operations, in addition to being able to access
all his users' passwords and personal information.16
Modem: An abbreviation for "Modulator/Demodulator".
This is a device which links a computer to an ordinary phone
line and converts computer signals to auditory phone signals. A
computer modem on the other end of the transmission then
reverses the process. Computers using modems transfer data
rapidly across phone lines and thus share information.17
Validation: Basically this is a set of procedures used
by responsible SYSOPs to do everything reasonably possible to
verify that the personal information supplied by a user is true
and correct. Common sense and emerging legal standards dictate
that the SYSOP should not merely rely on the name provided by a
potential user when the SYSOP does not personally know that
individual. The SYSOP may be required to independently
corroborate the prospective subscriber's information by first
asking the potential user's name, address and phone number and
then by checking that information with directory assistance.18
These procedures will hopefully aid the operator in identifying
wrongdoers if misuse occurs;19 however, as will be seen, these
procedures are by no means foolproof.
Database: Any collection of data in a computer for
purposes of later retrieval and use, i.e., names, addresses,
phone numbers, membership codes, etc.
User: Anyone who accesses a computerized bulletin board
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 7
system and is exposed to the information stored there. Users may
be identified by their true names, by an assigned numerical
code, or by colorful "handles", or "usernames."20
Operating System: This is a program which controls the
computer's basic operations and which recognizes different
computer users so that their actions do not interfere with one
another.21 For example, most multi-user operating systems will
not allow one user to delete another's data unless the second
user gives explicit permission.22 BBS system software programs
perform this function through their use of "accounts" and
"passwords":23 private electronic mail sent to a particular user
may not be read or deleted by others. The BBS' operating system
is also designed to deny access to those attempting to log on
under an unvalidated or unrecognized name.24
Account/Username: As another part of BBS system
security, each user chooses an "account", or "username",
consisting of one to eight letters or numbers.25 The BBS'
operating system then will not allow commands issued by one user
of one account to modify data created by another account;26 nor
will it grant access to an account that has been terminated or
Password: Yet another aspect of BBS system security is
the use of "passwords" as a prerequisite to accessing the
computer system. Most operating systems require the user to
enter both her account name and password to use the account.27
Because electronic mail cannot be sent without the username to
which it is being addressed, and because the account cannot be
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 8
used without knowledge of the password, usernames are generally
public knowledge while passwords are a closely-guarded secret,
known only to the user and the operating system.28
Teleprocessing: This is defined as accessing a computer
from a remote location, usually over a telephone line or similar
Uploading/Downloading: For purposes of exchanging
computer programs or electronic mail over the phone lines, the
process of transferring information from one's personal computer
to the bulletin board is called uploading. The reverse process -
transferring information from a bulletin board to a personal
computer - is known as downloading.30
II. DEFAMATION LIABILITY OF COMPUTERIZED BBS OPERATORS
A. Computerized Defamation: Libel or Slander?
Libel is the "publication of defamatory matter by
written or printed words, by its embodiment in physical form, or
by any other form of communication that has the potentially
harmful qualities characteristic of written or printed words."31
Publication of a defamatory matter is "its communication
intentionally or by a negligent act to one other than the person
defamed."32 A communication is defamatory if it "tends to so
harm the reputation of another as to lower him in the estimation
of the community or to deter third persons from associating or
dealing with him."33 The difference between libel and slander
has traditionally depended upon the form of the communication:
oral defamation generally is considered slander, while written
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 9
defamation is generally considered libel.34 The distinction is
important, because libel requires no proof of special damages
and is actionable by itself, while slander generally requires
proof of special damages in order to be actionable.35
However, with the advent of electronic media, the
traditional libel/slander distinctions as they apply to sight
and hearing are no longer valid. For example, passing defamatory
gestures and signals, though visible to sight, were considered
slander;36 an ad-libbed statement on a telecast impugning a
person's financial status was found to be libel.37
It has been suggested that the real distinction between
libel and slander is the threat and magnitude of harm to
reputation inherent in the form of publication.38 Libel has been
historically associated with writings because (1) a writing is
made more deliberately than an oral statement; (2) a writing
makes a greater impression to the eye than does an oral
statement to the ear; (3) a writing is more permanent than
speech; and (4) a writing has a wider area of dissemination than
speech.39 These four qualities inherent in a writing made the
possible harm to reputation greater than mere spoken words. In
applying libel to the new form of computerized communication
used on BBSes, the potentiality for harm to reputation is
significant, and should again be considered the controlling
In our hypothetical situation, the user discovered that
another user (the masquerader) had usurped her account name and
password, causing her great embarrassment and humiliation. The
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 10
act of prying into and taking another's computer information to
misuse it elsewhere would indicate a certain deliberation on the
actor's part to spread defamatory messages. Secondly, the
defamatory message is displayed to other users on their computer
monitors in the form of electronic characters, making a visual
impression. Third, this electronic defamation is more permanent
than mere words because it is stored in the BBS' memory until
erased by the user or SYSOP. Finally, the message arguably has a
wider area of dissemination than a one-to-one spoken defamation
because, as a message on an electronic BBS, it has the potential
of being viewed by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of users each
day. Based on these four criteria, the capacity for harm to our
user's reputation due to the masquerader's activities is indeed
great enough to be considered libellous.
B. Defamation Liability of the SYSOP
Having established the electronic message as being
libellous, the next issue is to determine the extent of
liability for the SYSOP who unknowingly permits the message to
be communicated over his BBS. Case law indicates that the
SYSOP's liability depends upon the type of person defamed and on
the subject matter of the defamation.
1. Degree of fault required
The United States Supreme Court has addressed modern
defamation liability in two major decisions. Both conditioned
the publisher's liability on the type of person defamed and on
the content of the defamation. In New York Times v. Sullivan,40
the Court determined that in order for a public official to
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 11
recover damages in a defamation action, the statement must be
shown to have been made with "actual malice", i.e., with
knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard for its
truth.41 Due to society's interest in "uninhibited, robust and
wide-open" debate on public issues, neither factual error nor
defamatory content sufficed to remove the First Amendment's
shield from criticism of an official's conduct.42
The Supreme Court further elaborated on defamation
liability standards in the private and quasi-private sphere when
it decided Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.43 In Gertz, the publisher
of a John Birch Society newsletter made certain false and
inaccurate accusations concerning an attorney who represented a
deceased boy's family. The family had civilly sued the policeman
who murdered the boy. In rebutting what he perceived to be a
secret campaign against law and order, the publisher labelled
the family's attorney a "Leninist" and "Communist-fronter".44 In
addition, the publisher asserted that the attorney had been a
member of the National Lawyers Guild, which "'probably did more
than any other outfit to plan the Communist attack on the
Chicago police during the 1968 Democratic Convention.'"45 In
publishing these statements throughout Chicago, the managing
editor of the Birch Society newsletter made no effort to verify
or substantiate the charges against the attorney.46
The Supreme Court held in Gertz that while First
Amendment considerations protect publications about public
officials47 and about "public figures"48, requiring a showing of
"actual malice" before defamation damages could be recovered,
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 12
the same was not true for defamation suits brought by private
citizens49, a group to which the attorney was held to belong.50
Private citizens were seen as deserving more protections from
defamation than public officials or public figures, so they were
not required to show "actual malice" as a precondition to
recovery.51 The Court then left it to the states to decide the
precise standard of liability for defamation of private
individuals, so long as liability without fault was not the
By Gertz, then, the appropriate standard of liability
for publicizing defamation of private parties falls somewhere
below actual malice and above strict liability. The problem with
defining the defamation standard for computerized BBS operators,
however, is a lack of uniform standards. In such circumstances,
the objective "reasonable person" standard will likely be
applied to the SYSOP's actions.53 Several cases may be usefully
applied by analogy.
The court in Hellar v. Bianco54 held that a bar
proprietor could be responsible for not removing a libellous
message concerning the plaintiff's wife that appeared on the
wall of the bar's washroom after having been alerted to the
message's existence.55 The court noted that "persons who invite
the public to their premises owe a duty to others not to
knowingly permit their walls to be occupied with defamatory
matter…. The theory is that by knowingly permitting such
matter to remain after reasonable opportunity to remove [it],
the owner of the wall or his lessee is guilty of republication
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 13
of the libel."56 The Hellar court then left the ultimate
determination of the bar owner's negligence to the jury.57 This
holding seems to be in accord with the Restatement of Torts,
PUBLICATION: (2) One who intentionally and unreasonably fails to remove defamatory matter that he knows to be exhibited on land or chattels in his possession or under his control is subject to liability for its continued publication.58 Contrarily, however, the Ohio court of appeals in Scott
v. Hull59 found that the building owner and agent who had
control over a building's maintenance were not responsible for
libel damages for graffiti inscribed by an unknown person on an
exterior wall.60 The court distinguished Hellar by noting that
in Hellar the bartender constructively adopted the defamatory
writing by delaying in removing it after having been expressly
asked to do so:
"It may thus be observed from these cases that where liability is found to exist it is predicated upon actual publication by the defendant or on the defendant's ratification of a publication by another, the ratification in Hellar v. Bianco...consisting of at least the positive acts of the defendants in continuing to invite the public into their premises where the defamatory matter was on view after the defendants had knowledge of existence of same."61 The Scott court held that defendants could only be
responsible for publishing a libellous remark through a positive
act, not nonfeasance; thus, their mere failure to remove the
graffiti from the building's exterior after having it called to
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 14
their attention was held not to be a sufficient basis of
A situation similar to Scott arose recently in Tackett
v. General Motors Corporation.63 There, an employee brought a
libel suit against his employer for, inter alia, failing to
remove allegedly defamatory signs from the interior wall of its
manufacturing plant after having notice of their existence. One
large sign remained on the wall for two to three days while a
smaller one remained visible for seven to eight months.64
Instead of focussing on the Scott malfeasance/nonfeasance
test,65 the Tackett court considered defendant's implied
adoption of the libellous statement to be the correct basis of
liability.66 While saying that failure to remove a libellous
message from a publicly-viewed place may be the equivalent of
adopting that statement, and noting that Indiana would follow
the Restatement view "when the time comes,"67 the Tackett court
held that the Restatement view could be taken too far. Citing
Hellar, the court wrote:
The Restatement suggests that a tavern owner would be liable if defamatory graffiti remained on a bathroom stall a single hour after the discovery [Citation to Hellar]. The common law of washrooms is otherwise, given the steep discount that readers apply to such statements and the high cost of hourly repaintings of bathroom stalls [Citation to Scott]. The burden of constant vigilance exceeds the benefits to be had. A person is responsible for statements he makes or adopts, so the question is whether a reader may infer adoption from the presence of a statement. That inference may be unreasonable for a bathroom wall or the interior of a subway car in New York City but appropriate for the interior walls of a manufacturing
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 15
plant, over which supervisory personnel exercise greater supervision and control. The costs of vigilance are small (most will be incurred anyway), and the benefits potentially large (because employees may attribute the statements to their employer more readily than patrons attribute graffiti to barkeeps).68 According to this reasoning, then, the location and
length of time the libel is allowed to appear plays an integral
part in determining whether a given defendant has adopted the
libel, and thus has published it.
An application of the foregoing analysis to the issue
at hand highlights the need for greater care in allowing the
posting of electronic mail messages on a BBS. The Tackett court
noted that while the content of graffitti scrawled on bathroom
walls might be subject to healthy skepticism by its readers, the
same might not be true for other locations such as interiors of
subway cars or manufacturing plant walls.69 If this is true,
then it is reasonable to assume that a defamatory message
displayed in a forum for the exchange of ideas is more apt to be
taken seriously by its readers - especially when the libellous
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 16
message purports to be written by the subject of the libel.70
Further, the Tackett court indicated that the high cost
of repainting bathroom stalls by the hour outweighed its
perceptible benefits. The same is not true for electronic BBSes,
where the costs of prevention are minimal in light of the threat
of widespread harm to users' reputations.71
Once the plaintiff establishes that the SYSOP failed to
act reasonably in removing statements known to be libellous from
his BBS or in negligently failing to prevent their appearance
there,72 no proof of special damages is necessary as libel is
actionable per se.73 The state's interest in protecting private
reputations has been held to outweigh the reduced constitutional
value of speech involving matters of no public concern such that
presumed and punitive damages may be recovered absent a showing
of actual malice.74
The proper gauge of liability has again raised some
questions.75 One writer has noted that if the burden of proof is
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 17
to rest on the plaintiff, she may be at a disadvantage in
producing sufficient evidence to demonstrate negligent conduct
on the part of the SYSOP.76 Solutions to this problem have
ranged from a rebuttable presumption of negligence in favor of
the plaintiff77 to adoption of a set of standards similar to
those set out in the Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act.78 In
either event, damage awards for computer abuse have been
addressed both by federal and state law.79
Because computerized BBSes are still a relatively new
technological phenomena, consistent standards for SYSOPs' duties
have yet to be developed.80 However, at least one users' group
has adopted a voluntary code of standards for electronic BBSes,
applicable to both users and SYSOPs of boards open to the
SCOPE: This Minimum Code of Standards applies to both users and SYStem Operators (SYSOPs) of electronic bulletin boards available to the general public. FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND IDEAS Each user and SYSOP of such systems shall actively encourage and promote the free exchange and discussion of information,
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 18
ideas, and opinions, except when the content would: - Compromise the national security of the United States. - violate proprietary rights. - violate personal privacy, - constitute a crime, - constitute libel, or - violate applicable state, federal or local laws and regulations affecting telecommunications. DISCLOSURE Each user and SYSOP of such system will: - disclose their real name, and - fully disclose any personal, financial, or commercial interest when evaluation any specific product or service. PROCEDURES SYSOPS shall: - review in a timely manner all publicly accessible information, and - delete any information which they know or should know conflicts with this code of standards. A 'timely manner' is defined as what is reasonable based on the potential harm that could be expected. Users are responsible for: - ensuring that any information they transmit to such systems adheres to this Minimum Code of Standards, and - upon discovering violations of the Minimum Code of Standards, notifying the SYSOP immediately. IMPLEMENTATION Electronic bulletin board systems that choose to follow this Minimum Code of Standards shall notify their users by publishing this Minimum Code, as adopted by the [Capitol PC Users Group], and prominently display the following: 'This system subscribes to the Capitol PC Users Group Minimum Code of Standards for electronic bulletin board systems.'81 While non-binding on publicly-accessible BBSes, the
above guidelines furnish sound basic policies that all SYSOPs
might use in shielding themselves from defamation liability. Our
hypothetical at the beginning of this Comment described a
situation where a malicious intruder was able to access and
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 19
masquerade as a validated user on a BBS; the following are some
additional computer security measures that the reasonable SYSOP
could conduct to avoid that situation:
a. Special "screening" software: One writer has
suggested discouraging potential BBS misuse through programming
the BBS to reject those messages containing common defamatory
and obscene language;82 such a program would discard a message
containing any of those terms and would presumably notify the
SYSOP of their presence. Drawbacks to this procedure are that
computer programs cannot understand all the nuances of libellous
messages83 and would thus lead to the rigid deletion of many
otherwise legitimate messages.84
b. Unique passwords: A more fundamental and
economical approach would be for the SYSOP to both notify all
new users about the potential for computerized BBS abuse and to
encourage their use of a unique password on each BBS they call.
This would have the practical effect of keeping a masquerader
from using the names and passwords found on one BBS to
wrongfully access and masquerade on other BBSes. A drawback to
this procedure is that the truly malicious masquerader may still
discover a BBS' most sensitive user records by way of a renegade
computer program called a "trojan horse".85 However, one could
speculate that the SYSOP acts reasonably in informing potential
users of the existing threat and in helping them avoid it.
c. Encryption: This is essentially a way for the
SYSOP to make the users' passwords unique for them. The power of
the computer allows complex algorithms to be applied to data to
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 20
encode it in such a way that, without the key to the code, it is
virtually impossible to decode the information.86 This technique
would have the added benefit of forcing the masquerader, upon
accessing the BBS with a trojan horse program, to search for the
secret decoding algorithm in addition to the BBS' secret user
files. Indeed, it is conceivable that a special encryption or
password could be devised to allow only the SYSOP access to the
BBS' decoding algorithm. However, encryption involves a
significant overhead - impractical for most small, privately-
operated BBSes - and is more frequently used to protect messages
from one system to another where the data is vulnerable to
interception as it passes over transmission lines.87
d. Prompt damage control: In accord with Hellar,88
the Restatement (Second) of Torts,89 and possibly Tackett,90 a
SYSOP acts reasonably in promptly assisting the libelled user to
partially reverse the effects of the masquerader's actions.
Recall that in those instances a defendant was held to have
impliedly adopted a defamatory statement by acting unreasonably
slowly in removing it from his property once having been made
aware of it.91 While it may be unreasonable to expect the SYSOP
to monitor each message posted every day - especially where the
defamatory message appears to have been left by the true user -
it is not too much to require the SYSOP to quickly remedy
security flaws in his BBS as they are pointed out to him.92 To
this end, the SYSOP has several options. In situations where the
defaming user libels another without masquerading as the
libelled party, the SYSOP could simply delete the defamer's
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 21
account. In situations where a user masquerading as another
posts a libellous message, the SYSOP could publish a retraction
to all his subscribers, urging them to use a different password
on each BBS they call. Further, where a masquerader published
the libel, the SYSOP should offer his full cooperation to the
maligned user in tracking down the time and date the libellous
message was posted93 in order to better limit the SYSOP's
Certain BBS SYSOPs claim that holding them liable for
information appearing on their BBSes violates their First
Amendment rights by restricting their right to free speech94 and
by holding them responsible for the libel perpetrated by the
masquerader. It has been suggested that the SYSOP should be held
to the same standard of liability as a neighborhood supermarket
which furnishes a public bulletin board:95 just as the
supermarket would not be liable for posting an advertisement for
illicit services, so should the BBS SYSOP escape liability for
libellous messages left on his board, especially when its poster
appears to be a validated user.96
However, this comparison lacks merit for the reasons
given by the Seventh Circuit in Tackett v. General Motors
Corporation.97 The defendant's liability in that case rested on
its publication of libel by implicitly adopting the statement.98
Defendant's failure to remove a defamatory sign painted on one
of the interior walls of its factory for seven or eight months
after discovering its presence was such that "[a] reasonable
person could conclude that Delco 'intentionally and unreasonably
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 22
fail[ed] to remove' this sign and thereby published its
There would certainly be accomplice liability if the
supermarket unreasonably delayed removing an advertisement for
illegal services from its bulletin board once it was made aware
of it. The market could be seen as having adopted the ad's
statements by not acting responsibly to its viewing public.
Similarly, a SYSOP would be liable for defamatory messages
posted on his BBS - even by what appears to be the true user -
if he fails to act reasonably by using his computer skill to
eviscerate the libel.100 While the computerized BBS may be
nothing more than a hobby of the SYSOP, the speed with which it
can disseminate potentially damaging information among its users
demands the standards of responsibility described above.
C. Defamation Liability of the Masquerader
1. Degree of fault required
It should be noted that the liability and proof issues
concerning the SYSOP and masquerader are inverse. As to the
SYSOP who allows libellous messages to be posted on his BBS, his
liability may be inferred simply by those messages having
appeared there;101 however, his degree of fault - actual malice
or simple negligence - is subject to debate.102 Conversely,
while the masquerader's degree of fault is clearly evident,103
tracing that fault back to him is a more elusive matter.104 The
requisite degree of fault for masqueraders is set out in federal
and state law.105
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 23
Assuming arguendo that the masquerader's defamatory
publications have been successfully traced back to him by the
plaintiff, actual and punitive damages may then be recovered
from him based on his knowledge of the publication's falsity or
reckless disregard for its truth.106 Federal and state law have
also specified certain remedies.107
III PROBLEMS OF PROOF
A. Proof of SYSOP's Actions
We have seen that while the appropriate degree of fault
for a SYSOP to be liable for defamatory messages appearing on
his BBS is subject to dispute,108 a showing that the defamation
appeared there due to the SYSOP's negligence is much more
capable of resolution.109 The jury should be made aware of the
actual validation/security procedures practiced by the SYSOP and
should weigh them in light of the prevailing practice.110
Several facets of an emerging standard of care for SYSOPs have
already been suggested in this Comment,111 and the SYSOP's
adherence to them could be shown through users' testimony.
B. Proof of Masquerader's Actions
In contrast with the degree of fault required to
establish the SYSOP's publication of the libellous message, the
degree of fault for the masquerader is much less subject to
debate. The masquerader's actions are not likely to be
considered merely inadvertent or negligent.112 However, because
the masquerader has intentionally discovered and usurped the
user's name and password, he appears to be that user on all
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 24
computer records. Tracing the masquerader's defamatory
publication back to him thus encounters some important
evidentiary barriers: the maligned user is forced to rely on
computerized records produced by the BBS and phone company in
trying to link the masquerader's libellous publication back to
him.113 We turn now to consider the evidentiary hurdles to be
overcome in tracing the libellous communication to its true
1. The Hearsay Rule & Business Records Exception
The first evidentiary obstacle to connecting the
masquerader with his libellous publication is the hearsay rule.
As defined by the Federal Rules of Evidence, hearsay is "a
statement, other than one made by the declarant while testifying
at the trial or hearing, offered in evidence to prove the truth
of the matter asserted";114 as such, it is inadmissible as
evidence at trial.115 Computer-generated evidence is subject to
the hearsay rule, not because it is the "statement of a
computer", but because it is the statement of a human being who
entered the data.116 To the extent the plaintiff user relies on
computer-generated records to show that a call was placed from
the masquerader to the BBS at the time and date in question,
then, her evidence may be excluded.
However, numerous exceptions to the hearsay rule have
developed over the years such that evidence which might
otherwise be excluded is deemed admissible. The most pertinent
hearsay exception as applied to computerized evidence is the
"business records exception", which admits into evidence any
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 25
records or data compilations, so long as (1) they were made
reasonably contemporaneously with the events they record; (2)
they were prepared/kept in the course of a regularly conducted
business activity; and (3) the business entity creating these
records relied on them in conducting its operations.117 The
veracity of the compvter seco0ds and of the actual business
practices are shown by the record custodian's or other qualified
witness' testimony, unless the circumstances indicate lack of
trustworthiness.118 The term "business" as used in this rule
includes callings of every kind, whether or not conducted for
Statutes and judicial decisions in several states have
gradually recognized that the business records exception extends
to include computer-generated records.120 This is largely due to
(1) modern business' widespread reliance on computerized record-
keeping, (2) the impracticability of calling as witnesses every
person having direct personal knowledge of the records'
creation, and (3) the presumption that if a business was willing
to rely on such records, there is little reason to doubt their
Using this exception to the hearsay rule, plaintiff
user would most likely seek to admit the BBS' computer-generated
username/password log-in records plus the phone company's call
records to establish the connection between the masquerader's
telephone and the BBS at the precise instant the libellous
message was posted.122 As an initial matter, however, plaintiff
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 26
must first lay a foundation for both the BBS' and phone
company's computer-generated business records.
A sufficient foundation for computer-generated records
was found recently to exist in People v. Lugashi.123 There, the
California Court of Appeal affirmed a conviction of grand theft
based on evidence adduced from computer-generated bank records.
Defendant, an oriental rug store owner, had been convicted of
fraudulently registering thirty-seven sales on counterfeit
credit cards. The issuing banks became suspicious of criminal
activity when charge card sales data from defendant's store
showed 44 fraudulent uses of charge cards at defendant's store
within only five weeks.124 As each fraudulent credit card
transaction was completed, defendant registered the sale
simultaneously with the banks' computers.125 Each night, as
standard bank practice, the banks then reduced the computer
records of credit card transactions to microfiche. Information
gleaned from these microfiche records was entered against
defendant at trial.126
The California Court of Appeal recognized the trial
court judge's wide discretion in determining whether a
sufficient foundation to qualify evidence as a business record
has been laid.127 It held that defendant's allocations of error
were without merit since defendant himself had acknowledged that
the bank's computer entries memorialized in the microfiche
record were entered simultaneously as they occurred in the
regular course of business.128 Further, the Court of Appeals
dismissed defendant's claim that only a computer expert could
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 27
supply testimony concerning the reliability of the computer
Appellant's proposed test incorrectly presumes computer data to be unreliable, and, unlike any other business record, requires its proponent to disprove the possibility of error, not to convince the trier of fact to accept it, but merely to meet the minimal showing required for admission.... The time required to produce this additional [expert] testimony would unduly burden our already crowded trial courts to no real benefit.129 The Lugashi court then followed the bulk of other
jurisdictions adopting similar analyses and upholding admission
of computer records with similar or less foundational showings
over similar objections.130
As to admission into evidence of telephone companies'
computer-generated call records under the business records
exception, courts have evinced a similar attitude to that in
Lugashi. In State v. Armstead,131 a prosecution for obscene
phone calls, the trial court was held to have properly admitted
computer printouts showing that calls had been made from
defendant's mother's telephone, despite defendant's contention
that the witness who was called to lay the foundation had not
been personally responsible for making the record.132 Because
the printout represented a simultaneous self-generated record of
computer operation, the court held it was therefore not
In an Ohio prosecution for interstate telephone
harassment, it was held no error was committed in admitting
defendant's computerized phone statement under the Business
Records exception which showed that telephone calls had been
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 28
made from defendant's phone in Ohio to various numbers in
Texas.134 A sufficient foundation for the admission of business
records under Federal Rules of Evidence 803(6) was established
when a telephone company witness identified the records as
authentic and testified they were made in the regular course of
Applying the foregoing analyses to BBSes, the plaintiff
user would establish a foundation for the correlated BBS136 and
telephone company phone logs by showing that (1) they were made
contemporaneously with the posting of the libellous message;137
(2) they were prepared/kept in the course of a regularly
conducted business activity, since both the BBS and telephone
company consistently maintain accounts of all persons who use
their services; and (3) the BBS and telephone company relied on
those records for billing purposes.138 Once such a foundation is
laid, the trial court has wide discretion in admitting business
records into evidence.139
2. Authentication & the Voluminous Records Exception
The second evidentiary barrier encountered in tracing
the masquerader's libellous messages back to him is proving his
authorship of the libel, or "authenticating" the computerized
records.140 The computer-generated phone and BBS records showing
that a call from a certain phone number at a particular date and
time resulted in a libellous message being published must
somehow be linked to the masquerader.
The Federal Rules of Evidence provide in pertinent
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 29
(a) General provision. The requirement of authentication or identification as a condition precedent to admissibility is satisfied by evidence sufficient to support a finding that the matter in question is what its proponent claims. (b) Illustrations. By way of illustration only, and not by way of limitation, the following are examples of authentication or identification conforming with the requirements of this rule:... (6) Telephone conversations. Telephone conversations, by evidence that a call was made to the number assigned at the time by the telephone company to a particular person or business, if (A) in the case of a person, circumstances, including self-identification, show the person answering to be the one called, or (B) in the case of a business, the call was made to a place of business and the conversation related to business reasonably transacted over the telephone....141 The question of whether a writing is properly
authenticated is primarily one of law for the court; if the
court decides the question affirmatively, it is ultimately for
the jury.142 The court will make no assumptions as to the
authenticity of documents in deciding their initial
admissibility.143 The difficulty presented here is that the
Federal Rules of Evidence seem to require authentication of
telephone calls by reference to their specific content.144 The
specific content of a given phone call is not demonstrated by
phone logs showing merely the date and time the call occurred.
The authentication of extrinsic documents may be
subject to a "best evidence rule" objection. As stated in
Federal Rule of Evidence 1002:
REQUIREMENT OF ORIGINAL: To prove the contents of a
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 30
writing, recording, or photograph, the original of that writing, recording, or photograph is required, unless provided otherwise in these rules or by an act of Congress.145 Since its introduction in the 18th century, various
rationales have been posited for this rule.146 While earlier
writers asserted that the rule is intended to prevent fraud,
most modern commentators agree that the rule's main purpose is
to convey to the court the exact operative effect of the
However, at least one jurisdiction has implicitly
equated compliance with the business records exception with the
Best Evidence Rule. In Louisiana v. Hodgeson,148 the defendant
in a manslaughter trial contended that a printout of her
telephone bill, offered to show communications between her and a
third party, was not authenticated.149 The court, while making
no specific reference to the authentication point, rejected
defendant's contention, noting that the information from the
computer's storage was the company's business record and that it
was accessible only by printout.150
Similarly, in an Indiana bank robbery prosecution,151
the state offered microfiche copies of the telephone company's
computerized records showing certain telephone calls from
defendant. On appeal, defendant argued that these documents were
not authenticated because they were not the "original or first
permanent entry," and that they therefore should not have been
admitted into evidence. The court disagreed, saying that a
duplicate was admissible to the same extent as an original
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 31
unless a "genuine issue" were raised as to the authenticity of
By these precedents, then, provided plaintiff user
establishes that both the telephone and BBS user records were
prepared in accordance with the business records exception,153
the fact that a call from the masquerader's phone is shown to
have occurred at the same instant the libellous message was
posted may be sufficient to authenticate that the call was made
by the masquerader. Other circumstantial evidence adduced by
plaintiff user would strengthen this inference.154
Another authentication hurdle in plaintiff's case is
the requirement that the entire original record sought to be
authenticated be produced.155 This requirement can prove highly
impractical in situations where there are vast numbers of
individual records extending over long periods of time.156
Requiring plaintiff to produce the entire body of these records
would be unduly expensive and time-consuming. What is more, if
plaintiff were to attempt to summarize vast computerized
business data compilations so as to introduce those summaries
into evidence without producing the complete body of computer
records, such summaries might not be admissible on the grounds
that they were not made "in the regular course of business."157
However, an exception to strict authentication
requirements of the Federal Rules of Evidence has been
developed. Rule 1006 provides:
The contents of voluminous writings, recordings, or photographs which cannot conveniently be examined in court may be presented in the form of a chart, summary,
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 32
or calculation. The originals, or duplicates, shall be made available for examination or copying, or both, by other parties at reasonable time and place. The court may order that they be produced in court.158 In Cotton v. John W. Eshelman & Sons, Inc.,159
summaries of certain computerized records were held properly
admitted into evidence on the theory that "[w]hen pertinent and
essential facts can be ascertained only by an examination of a
large number of entries in books of account, an auditor or
expert examiner who has made an examination and analysis of the
books and figures may testify as a witness and give summarized
statements of what the books show as a result of his
investigation, provided the books themselves are accessible to
the court and to the parties."160 Under this precedent,
plaintiff user would only need to produce the pertinent parts of
the computerized records, as determined by an impartial auditor.
It is difficult to overestimate the ease with which
computers now enable us to compile and exchange information.
Computerized "bulletin boards" run on personal microcomputers by
private persons and businesses are examples of this enhanced
form of communication. Users can trade computer programs and
exchange a wealth of ideas, opinions, and personal information
through such forums.
The advantages of this process break down, however,
when malicious users abuse the system and BBS SYSOPS
intentionally or negligently allow this to occur. The nature of
computerized data is such that tortious misinformation may
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 33
easily be spread to thousands of users before it is discovered.
Because the potential for harm to reputation is so tremendous,
appropriate standards of liability and methods of proof must be
The requisite degree of fault in libelling private
persons is less than that for libelling public officials/public
figures, and may be established as against a SYSOP by a simple
showing of his negligent failure to observe reasonably minimal
computer security measures. The basis of liability for a
masquerader who intentionally misappropriates another's private
information is even less subject to debate.
Two main evidentiary hurdles face the plaintiff seeking
to link the masquerader with his libellous message through
reliance on computer-generated records. First, the hearsay rule
automatically excludes all evidence produced out-of-court that
is being offered to prove the truth of the matter at hand.
Second, the authentication requirement demands that the
masquerader's connection to the entire body of proffered
computer records be established.
However, certain exception to both of these limitations
ease the plaintiff's burden. First, the business records
exception to the hearsay rule admits computer records into
evidence if they (1) were made reasonably contemporaneously with
the events they record; (2) were prepared/kept in the course of
a regularly conducted business activity; and (3) the business
entity creating these records relied on them in conducting its
operations. Both BBS and telephone company records may come
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 34
under this exception. Second, the voluminous writings exception
allows the contents of voluminous computerized records which
cannot conveniently be examined in court to be presented in the
form of a summary. So long as the original records or duplicates
thereof are available for examination by other parties at
reasonable times and places, the entire data compilation need
not be produced. Plaintiff should employ both of these
exceptions in an effort to convince a jury by a preponderance of
the evidence that the masquerader has abused his computer skills
and has damaged plaintiff's reputation.
From email@example.com Sat Apr 21 01:07:10 1990 Received: from delta.eecs.nwu.edu by gaak.LCS.MIT.EDU via TCP with SMTP
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Date: Fri, 20 Apr 90 12:42:02 PDT From: Lang Zerner firstname.lastname@example.org Message-Id: 9004201942.AA08069@khayyam.EBay.Sun.COM To: email@example.com Subject: Sysops and libel liability – endnotes Resent-Date: Sat, 21 Apr 90 0:05:23 CDT Resent-From: firstname.lastname@example.org Resent-To: ptownson@gaak.LCS.MIT.EDU Status: RO
Here are the endnotes to the paper I submitted in a separate message.
Be seeing you… ==Lang
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 35
1. 418 U.S. 323, 94 S.Ct. 2997, 41 L.Ed.2d 789 (1974).
2. These interests can cover anything from science fiction
to gourmet cooking. Uyehara, Computer Bulletin Boards: Let the Operator Beware, 14 Student Lawyer 28 (1986).
3. Id., at 30.
4. The data service Compuserve is one such national BBS
run for profit by business organizations. Uyehara, at 28. Other examples of large databases of interest to the legal profession are computerized research services such as LEXIS and WESTLAW.
5. Uyehara, at 28; Manning, Bulletin Boards: Everybody's
Online Services, Online, Nov. 1984, at 8,9. "Modem" is defined infra, note 17 and accompanying text.
6. "…computer bulletin boards offer their users
important benefits. An individual can use a bulletin board to express his opinion on a matter of public interest. He may find a review of a product he is considering buying. He may find a useful piece of software. An individual might also use the bulletin board to ask a technical question about a specific computer program." Note, Computer Bulletin Board Operator Liability For User Misuse, 54 Fordham L.Rev. 439, 440 (1985) (Authored by Jonathan Gilbert); see also Lasden, Of Bytes And Bulletin Boards, N.Y.Times, August 4, 1985, sec. 6, at 34, col. 1, where the author notes computer users may now use BBSes to voice their opinions directly to State Senators' offices.
7. "Virus" Hits Nation's Research Computers, San Jose
Mercury News, Nov. 4, 1988, at 1, col. 1.
8. "It is estimated that the theft of long-distance
services and software piracy each approximate $100 million a year; credit card fraud via computers costs about $200 million annually." Pittman, Computer Security In Insurance Companies, 85 Best's Rev. - Life- Health Ins. Edition, Apr. 1985 at 92.
9. Schiffres, The Shadowy World of Computer "Hackers,"
U.S. News & World Report, June 3, 1985, at 58.
10. Pollack, Free Speech Issues Surround Computer Bulletin
Board Use, N.Y. Times, Nov. 12, 1984, note 1, at D4, col. 6.
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 36
11. Note, 54 Fordham L.Rev. 440-441 (1985).
12. Poore and Brockman, 8 Nat'l L.J. 14, (1985).
13. See infra, Topic III, Problems of Proof.
14. The uncertainty revolves around how to define BBSes.
When viewed as analogous to newspapers and other media, SYSOPS would be responsible for any message posted on their systems, much as newspaper editors are responsible for articles appearing in their medium. Uyehara, 14 Student Lawyer 30 (1986). But when BBSes are compared to a bulletin board found in a public hall or supermarket, the liability issue is focused more on those actually posting the messages rather than on the board's owner. Id., at 30. This Comment suggests that BBS SYSOPs be held to a reasonable standard of care emerging specifically for their endeavors. See infra, Topic II.
15. Poore and Brockman, 8 Nat'l L.J. 14, (1985). Another
writer has noted that Compuserve now has over 200,000 users making use of nearly 100 diverse databases. Lasden, Of Bytes And Bulletin Boards, N.Y. Times, August 4, 1985, sec. 6, at 34, col. 1.
16. Poore and Brockman, 8 Nat'l L.J. 14 (1985).
17. 14 Am Jur. POF 2d Computer-Generated Evidence Sec. 11
18. Note, 54 Fordham L.Rev. 439, 446 (1985).
20. See "Account," infra, note 25 and accompanying text.
21. Garfinkel, An Introduction to Computer Security, 33
Prac. Law.41-42 (1987).
23. See infra, notes 25 and 27 and accompanying text.
24. Some more sophisticated operating systems provide
greater access control by (1) recording unauthorized attempts at entry; (2) recording those attempts and sending a warning to the perpetrator; and (3) keeping the perpetrartor off the system permanently until he/she is reinstated by the computer's security administrator or SYSOP. Balding, Computer Breaking and Entering: The Anatomy of Liability, 5 Computer Lawyer, Jan. 1988, at 6.
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 37
25. Garfinkel, An Introduction to Computer Security, 33
Prac. Law. 42 (1987).
27. Id. "A password is a secret word or phrase that should
be known only to the user and the computer. When the user first attempts to use the computer, he must first enter the password. The computer then compares the typed password to the stored password and, if they match, allows the user access."
28. Id., at 42 and 46.
29. 14 Am. Jur. POF 2d Computer-Generated Evidence Sec. 11
30. 54 Fordham L.Rev. 439, note 2 (1985).
31. Restatement (Second) of Torts Sec. 568(1) (1976).
32. Restatement (Second) of Torts Sec. 577(1) (1976).
33. Restatement (Second) of Torts Sec.559 (1976).
34. Veeder, The History and Theory of the Law of
Defamation, 3 Colum. L.Rev. 546, 569-571 (1903).
35. Restatement (Second) of Torts Sec. 622 (1976).
36. Restatement, Torts Sec. 568, comment d (1938).
37. Shor v. Billingley, 4 Misc.2d 857, 158 N.Y.S.2d 476
(Sup. Ct. 1956), aff'd mem., 4 App.Div. 2d 1017, 169 N.Y.S.2d 416 (1st Dep't. 1957).
38. Torts: Defamation: Libel-Slander Distinction:
Extemporaneous Remarks Made on Television Broadcast: Shor v. Billingley, 4 Misc. 2d 857, 158 N.Y.S.2d 476 (Sup.Ct. N.Y. County 1957), 43 Cornell L.Q. 320, 322 (1957) (Authored by Stephen A. Hochman).
40. 376 U.S. 254, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (1964),
motion denied 376 U.S. 967, 84 S.Ct. 1130, 12 L.Ed.2d 83.
41. 376 U.S. 254, 273.
42. 376 U.S. 254, 280.
43. 418 U.S. 323, 94 S.Ct. 2997, 41 L.Ed.2d 789 (1974).
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 38
44. Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 326.
46. Id., at 327.
47. "…those who hold governmental office may recover for
injury to reputation only on clear and convincing proof that the defamatory falsehood was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth." Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 342. "An individual who decides to seek governmental office must accept certain necessary consequences of that involvement in pubic affairs. He runs the risk of closer public scrutiny than might otherwise be the case." Id., at 344.
48. "…[A]n individual may attain such pervasive fame and
notoriety that he becomes a public figure for all purposes and in all contexts. More commonly, an individual voluntarily injects himself or is drawn into a particular public controversy and thereby becomes a public figure for a limited range of issues. In either case such persons assume special prominence in the resolution of public questions." 418 U.S. 323, 351.
49. "Even if the foregoing generalities do not obtain in
every circumstance, the communications media are entitled to act on the assumption that public officials and public figures have voluntarily exposed themselves to the increased risk of injury from defamatory falsehood concerning them. No such assumption is justified with respect to a private individual. He has not accepted public office or assumed an 'influential role in ordering society.' Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S., at 164 ...He has relinquished no part of his interest in the protection of his own good name, and consequently he has a more compelling call on the courts for redress of injury inflicted by the defamatory falsehood. Thus, private individuals are not only more vulnerable to injury than public officials and public figures; they are also more deserving of recovery." Id., at 345.
50. "…[P]etitioner was not a public figure. He … plainly did not thrust himself into the vortex of this
public issue, nor did he engage the public's attention in an attempt to influence its outcome." Id., at 352.
51. Justice Powell noted for the Court that
"[T]he communications media are entitled to act on the assumption that public officials and public figures have voluntarily exposed themselves to increased risk of injury from defamatory falsehood
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 39
concerning them. No such assumption is justified with respect to a private individual. He has not accepted public office or assumed an 'influential role in ordering society....' He has relinquished no part of his interest in the protection of his own good name, and consequently he has a more compelling call on the courts for redress of injury inflicted be defamatory falsehood. Thus, private individuals are not only more vulnerable to injury than public officials and public figures; they are also more deserving of recovery." Id., at 345.
52. Id., at 347.
53. Keeton, Dobbs, Keeton and Owen, Prosser and Keeton on
Torts, sec. 32, p.174. See also Vaughn v. Menlove, 3 Bing. (N.C.) 467, 132 Eng.Rep. 490 (1837).
54. 111 Cal. App. 2d 424, 244 P.2d 757, 28 ALR2d 451
55. 111 Cal. App. 2d 424, 427.
56. Id., at 426.
57. Id, at 427.
58. Restatement (Second) of Torts Sec. 577(2) (1976).
59. 22 Ohio App.2d 141, 259 N.E.2d 160 (1970).
60. Scott v. Hull, 259 N.E.2d 160, 162 (1970).
61. Id., at 161.
62. Id., at 162.
63. 836 F.2d 1042 (7th Cir. 1987).
64. Id., at 1047.
65. The Court of Appeals noted the Restatement view and
observed that Indiana law had neither embraced nor rejected that approach. Id., at 1046.
68. Id., at 1046-47.
70. Recall that in our hypothetical a third user Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 40
masquerading as another is transmitting messages to others, revealing embarassing and false information.
71. BBS systems security and other preventative measures
are discussed more fully infra, Topic 3.d.
72. Issues in proving the SYSOP's role in publishing the
libellous statement are discussed more fully in Topic III. A., infra.
73. Sydney v. MacFadden Newspaper Publishing Corp., 242
N.Y. 208, 151 N.E. 209, 44 A.L.R. 1419 (1926). See also Restatement (Second) of Torts Sec. 621 (1976) ("One who is liable for a defamatory communication is liable for the proved, actual harm caused to the reputation of the person defamed.")
74. Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc., 472
U.S. 749, 86 L.Ed.2d 593, 105 S.Ct. 2939 (1985).
75. See supra, note 53 and accompanying text.
76. Note, Protecting the Subjects of Credit Reports, 80
Yale L.J. 1035, 1051-52, n.88 (1971).
77. Gertz did not rule out an assumption of defendant's
negligence. See Eaton, The American Law of Defamation Through Gertz V. Robert Welch, Inc., and Beyond: An Analytical Primer, 61 Va. L.Rev. 1349 (1975).
78. 15 U.S.C.A. Sec. 1681 et seq. (1974). Two standards are
proposed there: the first, willful noncompliance, is defined as equivalent to the New York Times "actual malice" standard, and violators are liable for actual and punitive damages. Sec. 1681(n), supra. Presumably this would apply to the situation where the SYSOP is dilatory in removing the libellous message. The second proposed standard, negligent noncompliance, occurs in the absence of willfulness and results in liability only for actual damages. Sec. 1681(o), supra. Situations where the SYSOP failed to adopt reasonable computer security measures might come under this category.
79. 18 U.S.C.S. Sec. 2707(b),© (Law. Co-op 1979 & Supp.
1988) provides in pertinent part:
(b) Relief. In a civil action under this section, appropriate relief includes - (1) Such preliminary and other equitable or declaratory relief as may be appropriate; (2) damages under subsection (c); and (3) a reasonable attorney's fee and other litigation costs reasonably incurred. (c) Damages. The court may assess as damages in a
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 41
civil action under this section the sum of the actual damages suffered by the plaintiff and any profits made by the violator as a result of the violation, but in no case shall a person entitled to recover receive less than the sum of $1,000. 18 U.S.C.S. Sec. 2707(e) (Law. Co-op 1979 & Supp. 1988) limits the civil action under this section to two years after the date upon which the claimant first discovered or had a reasonable opportunity to discover the violation. As to damage provisions supplied by state law, see California Penal Code 502(e)(1),(2) (West Pub. 1988):
(e)(1) In addition to any civil remedy available, the owner or lessee of the computer, computer system, computer network, computer program, or data may bring a civil action against any person convicted under this section for compensatory damages, including any expenditure reasonably and necessarily incurred by the owner or lessee to verify that a computer system, computer network, computer program, or data was not altered, damaged, or deleted by the access. For purposes of actions authorized by this subdivision, the conduct of an unemancipated minor shall be imputed to the parent or legal guardian having control or custody of the minor, pursuant to the provisions of Section 1714.1 of the Civil Code. (2) In any action brought pursuant to this subdivision the court may award reasonable attorney's fees to a prevailing party.
80. A lawsuit recently filed in the United States District
Court for the Southern District of Indiana may break new ground in enunciating precisely what BBS SYSOPs' reasonable duties of care are. Thompson v. Predaina, Civil Action #IP-88 93C (S.D. Ind. filed 1988). The complaint alleges, inter alia, invasion of plaintiff user's privacy, libel, and wrongful denial of access to the BBS in violation of U.S.C. Title 18, ss 2701 (a)(2). As to statutory damages available, see infra, note 105.
81. Gemignani, Computer Law 33:7 (Lawyers Co-op 1985, Supp.
1988) (quoting Capitol PC Users Group Minimum Code of Standards for electronic Bulletin Board Systems, reprinted in 4 Computer Law Reptr. 89).
82. Note, 54 Fordham L.Rev. 439, 449 (1985) (Authored by
83. Id., at 449.
84. Id., at 449-50.
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 42
85. A "trojan horse" program takes control of the BBS and
allows its sender to access and steal its most sensitive information. Fites, Johnston and Kratz, The Computer Virus Crisis, Van Nortrand/Reinhold (1989), at 39 and 45.
86. Balding, Computer Breaking and Entering: The Anatomy of
Liability, 5 Computer Law. (January 1988), at 6.
88. Hellar v. Bianco, 244 P.2d 757. See supra, note 54 and
89. Restatement (Second) of Torts Sec. 577(2) (1976). See
supra, note 58 and accompanying text.
90. Tackett v. General Motors Corporation, 836 F.2d 1042
(7th Cir. 1987). See supra, note 63 and accompanying text.
91. See note 53, supra, and accompanying text.
92. It has been suggested that this would be the rough
equivalent of a newspaper publishing a retraction after discovering what it had printed was defamatory. Note, 54 Fordham L.Rev. 439, note 55 (1985). BBS operators should not be held liable in this situation insofar as they did not know of the nature of the statement at the time it was made. Restatement (Second) of Torts Sec. 581 (1977).
93. Proving the masquerader's actions is discussed more
fully infra, Topic III. B.
94. Stipp, Computer Bulletin Board Operators Fret Over
Liability for Stolen Data, Wall St. J. Nov. 9, 1984, at 33, col. 1.
96. See Topic I., supra, where the masquerader has
discovered and uses the password and name of the regular user; he appears for all intents and purposes to be that regular user.
97. 836 F.2d 1042 (7th Cir. 1987).
98. Id., at 1047.
100. Indeed, U.S.C. Title 18, Sec. 2702 (Law. Co-op 1979 & Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 43
Supp. 1988) proscribes the knowing dissemination of an electronically stored communication by the SYSOP:
Sec. 2702. Disclosure of contents (a) Prohibitions. Except as provided in subsection (b)- (1) a person or entity providing an electronic communication service to the public shall not knowingly divulge to any person or entity the contents of a communication while in electronic storage on that service; and (2) a person or entity providing remote computing service to the public shall not knowingly divulge to any person or entity the contents of any communication which is carried or maintained on that service- (A) on behalf of, and received by means of electronic transmission from (or created by means of computer processing of communications received by means of electronic transmissions from), a subscriber or customer of such service; and (B) solely for the purpose of providing storage or computer processing services to such subscriber or customer, if the provider is not authorized to access the contents of any such communications for purposes of providing any services other than storage or computer processing. A similar provision is embodied in Cal. Pen. Code sec. 502(c)(6) (West Pub. 1988), which provides: (c) Except as provided in subdivision (i), any person who commits any of the following acts is guilty of a public offense: (6) Knowingly and without permission provides or assists in providing a means of accessing a computer, computer system, or computer network in violation of this section.
101. The doctrine of res ipsa loquitor, or "the thing speaks
for itself" warrants the inference of the SYSOP's negligence, which the jury may draw or not as its judgement dictates. See Sullivan v. Crabtree, 36 Tenn.App. 469, 258 S.W.2d 782 (1953).
102. See discussion under Topic II. B., supra.
103. As someone who intentionally accesses confidential
password information to masquerade as other users on other BBSes, the masquerader falls well within the pale
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 44
of "actual malice" defined in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 342, supra, note 43 and accompanying text (a defamatory falsehood was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth).
104. Evidentiary problems involved with proving the
masquerader's actions are discussed more in Topic III. B., infra.
105. 18 U.S.C.S. Sec. 2707(a) (Law. Co-op 1979 & Supp. 1988)
describes the masquerader's fault thus:
(a) Cause of action. Except as provided in section 2703(e), any provider of electronic communication service, subscriber, or customer aggrieved by any violation of this chapter in which the conduct constituting the violation is engaged in with a knowing or intentional state of mind may, in a civil action, recover from the person or entity which engaged in that violation such relief as may be appropriate. California Penal Code sec. 502(c) et seq. (West Pub. 1988) is even more specific:
(c) Except as provided in subdivision (i), any person who commits any of the following acts is guilty of a public offense: (1) Knowingly accesses and without permission alters, damages, deletes, destroys, or otherwise uses any data, computer, computer system, or computer network in order to either (A) devise or execute any scheme or artiface to defraud, deceive, or extort, or (B) wrongfully control or obtain money, property or data. * * * (3) Knowingly and without permission uses or causes to be used computer services. (4) Knowingly accesses and without permission adds, alters, damages, deletes, or destroys any data, computer software, or computer programs which reside or exist internal or external to a computer, computer system, or computer network. * * * (7) Knowingly and without permission accesses or causes to be accessed any computer, computer system, or computer network.
106. Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 342.
107. In addition to the remedies set forth in note 105, Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 45
supra, the following federal and state penalties may apply: 18 U.S.C.S. Sec. 2701(b),(c) (Law. Co-op 1979 & Supp. 1988):
(b) Punishment. The punishment for an offense under subsection (a) of this seciton is - (1) if the offense is committed for purposes of commercial advantage, malicious destruction or damage, or private commercial gain - (A) a fine not more dhan &250,0
imprisonment for not more than one year, or both, in the case of a first offense under this subparagraph; and (B) a fine under this title or imprisonment for not more than two years, or both, for any subsequent offense under this subparagraph; and (2) a fine of not more than $5,000 or imprisonment for not more than six months, or both, in any other case. (c) Exceptions. Subsection (a) of this section does not apply with respect to conduct authorized- (1) by the person or entity providing a wire or electronic communications service; (2) by a user of that service with respect to a communication of or intended for that user; or (3) in section 2703, 2704, or 2518 of this title. For an example of state-mandated damages provisions on this subject, see California Penal Code sec. 502(d) et seq. (West Pub. 1988).
108. See discussion under Topic II. B., supra.
109. See note 101, supra.
110. "Custom…bears upon what other will expect the actor
to do, and what, therefore, reasonable care may require the actor to do, upon the feasibility of taking precautions, the difficulty of change, and the actor's opportunity to learn the risks and what is called for to meet them. If the actor does only what everyone else has done, there is at least an inference that the actor is conforming to the communit`'s i`ea of reasonable behavior." Keeton, Dobbs, Keeton and Owen, Prosser and Keeton on Torts, sec. 33, p.194. See also James, Particularizing Standards of Conduct in Negligence Trials, 5 Vand. L. Rev. 697, 709-714 (1952); Ploetz v. Big Discount Panel Center, Inc., 402 So.2d 64 (Fla. App. 1981).
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 46
111. See notes 80-93, supra, and accompanying text.
112. See note 103, supra.
113. See Pfau and Keane, Computer Logs Can Pinpoint Illegal
Transactions, Legal Times of Washington, vol. 6, p.16 (May 14, 1984): "Computers can monitor their own use. Unlike other such forms of physical evidence such as guns, computers can keep track of individual users and other identifying data. Imagine a gun that logs every instance it is fired or even handled, and shows the date, time, and activity. Recovery of such a weapon would be essential to the prosecution. "Most computers have long had built-in logging capabilities....The log function was designed to facilitate billing for the use of computer resources rather than to assist crime detection. To the extent that the owner of a smaller computer does not charge for its use, he or she has no incentive to purchase a self-executing log. Still, such logs keep surprisingly accurate records of who is using the computer."
114. Fed. R. Evid. 801©.
115. Fed. R. Evid. 802: "Hearsay is not admissible except as
provided by these rules or by other rules precribed by the Supreme Court pursuant to statutory authority or by Act of Congress." Exclusion of hearsay evidence is grounded on: (1) nonavailability of the declarant for cross-examination and observance of demeanor; (2) absence of an oath by the person making the statement; amd (3) significant risk that the person that the witness may report proffered statements inaccurately. 2 Bender, Computer Law, sec. 6.01.
116. Gemignani, The Data Detectives: Building A Case From
Computer Files, 3 Nat'l L.J. 29 (1981).
117. Fed. R. Evid. 803(6). See also 2 Bender, Computer Law,
sec. 6.01 (1988).
118. Fed. R. Evid. 803(6).
119. Id. In current practice records kept by nonprofit
organizations, such as churches, have long been held to be admissible. Ford v. State, 82 Tex.Cr.R. 638, 200 S.W. 841 (1918). It is at least arguable that a computerized BBS, although run as a hobby, falls under the same classification.
120. See Iowa Code Ann. Sec. 622.28; People v. Lugashi, 252
Cal.Rptr 434 (Cal.App. 2 Dist. 1988).
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 47
121. See 14 Am.Jur. POF2d Sec. 15 (1977, Supp. 1988). Cf.
United States v. De Georgia, 420 F.2d 889, 2 CLSR 479, 484 (1969, CA9 Ariz), where it was held that it is immaterial whether a business record is maintained in a computer rather than in company books regarding admissibility of those records, so long as (1) the trial court requires the proponent of the computerized records to lay a foundation as to their trustworthiness, and (2) the opposing party is given the same opportunity to inquire into the computer's accuracy as he would have to inquire into the accuracy of written business records.
122. The BBS program run on the SYSOP's computer ordinarily
"stamps" the date and time of day each user logs onto the BBS. A corresponding record is automatically affixed to each piece of electronic mail posted so that the reader knows when it was added to the database. Similarly, the telephone company maintains copious records of the date and time each phone call is connected in its dialing area. The caller has no control over either of these processes.
123. 252 Cal.Rptr. 434 (Cal.App. 2 Dist. 1988).
124. Id., at 437.
127. Id., at 439.
128. Id., at 437.
129. Id., at 440.
130. Id., at 442. See also United States v. Russo, 480 F.2d
1228 (CA6 Mich, 1973), cert den 414 U.S. 1157, 94 S.Ct. 915, 39 L.Ed.2d 109; Capital Marine Supply, Inc. v. M/V Roland Thomas II, 719 F.2d 104 (1983 CA5 La), 104 Fed Rules Evid Serv 731; Peoples Cas & Coke Co. v. Barrett, 118 Ill.App.3d 52, 73 Ill. Dec. 400, 455 N.E.2d 829 (1983).
131. 432 So.2d 837 (La., 1983).
132. Id., at 839-40.
133. Id., at 839.
134. United States v. Verlin, 466 F.Supp. 155 (ND Tex,
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 48
135. Id., at 158.
136. The reasonable SYSOP should offer his full cooperation
in aiding the maligned user to regain her good name by providing her with his BBS' phone-in records made at the time the libellous message appeared. See note 93, supra.
137. See note 123, supra.
138. Cf. note 118, supra. As to an electronic BBS being
classified as a "business" for hearsay purposes, see note 120, supra.
139. See note 128, supra.
140. Authentication has been broadly described thus: "[W]hen
a claim or offer involves impliedly or expressly any element of personal connection with a corporeal object, that connection must be made to appear...." Wigmore, Evidence, Sec. 2129 at 564 (2d ed. 1972). This requirement is also known as the "Best Evidence Rule."
141. Fed. R. Evid. 901(a),(b)(6).
142. 2 Bender, Computer Law, sec. 5.03[a] (1988).
144. See Fed. R. Evid. 901(b)(6): "(6) Telephone
conversations. Telephone conversations, by evidence that a call was made to the number assigned at the time by the telephone company to a particular person or business, if *** (B) in the case of a business, the call was made to a place of business and the conversation related to business reasonably transacted over the telephone...." (emphasis added).
145. Fed. R. Evid. 1002.
146. E.W. Cleary, McCormick on Evidence, sec. 231 (2nd. Ed.
147. Id. Further rationales for the rule are risks of
inaccuracy contained in commonly used copying techniques and heightened chances of witness' forgetfulness through oral testimony. Id., sec. 231.
148. 305 So.2d 421, 7 C.L.S.R. 1238 (La. 1974).
149. 305 So.2d 421, 427.
150. Id., at 428.
Defamation Liability of Computerized BBS Operators & Problems of Proof (C) 1989 John R. Kahn 49
151. Brandon v. Indiana, 396 N.E.2d 365 (Ind. 1979).
152. Id., at 370.
153. See note 121, supra, and accompanying text.
154. Other circumstantial evidence might include, among
other things: possible motive for the masquerader to defame plaintiff; plaintiff's own inability to call from the phone number from which the defamatory message is shown to have originated; or even an electronic "fingerprint" left by the particular computer from which the defamatory message originated. Pfau and Keane, Computer Logs Can Pinpoint Illegal Trasactions, Legal Times of Washington, vol. 6, p.16 (May 14, 1984).
155. Fed. R. Evid. 1002 provides:
REQUIREMENT OF ORIGINAL. To prove the content of a writing, recording, or photograph, the original of that writing, recording or photograph is required, unless provided otherwise in these rules or by an Act of Congress.
156. Examples of this situation are the telephone company's
keeping of hundreds of thousands of individual computerized records of each telephone call made within a certain dialing area, or a BBS' extensive history of subscriber use compiled for billing purposes.
157. See Harned v. Credit Bureau of Gilette, 513 P2d 650, 5
CLSR 394 (1973).
158. Fed. R. Evid. 1006.
159. 137 Ga.App. 360, 223 S.E.2d 757 (1976).
160. 223 S.E.2d 757, 760.