What Is My Responsibility When It Comes To User Supplied Comments?

I’ve been hosting a ColdFusion ISP list for many years now. The application was given a Flex overhaul a while back, but that aside it is the same core list and code that has been online since the late 90s. There is a lot of data in the list, none of which I create. Rather, hosting companies can create and manage their own listings, and users can rate hosting companies.
While I don’t manage any of the listings, I do manually approve them. Every once in awhile someone will add a bogus listing, and while I do not perform any due diligence to check out the listed companies, I do kill any listings that are obviously not authentic. The same applies to comments and reviews. These are not automatically posted, rather I approve each one, killing those with e-mail addresses like “” or with comments like “you suck”, and so on. The only other time I get involved is to remove listing of companies no longer in business when I am made aware of them.
And as a rule I do not delete comments. Yes, I am sure that there are some that are fake or flat out wrong, but there is no way I can really verify that, and so unless a comment is obscene or obviously someone messing around, they stay listed. If a hosting company does not like a comment they are more than welcome to post a follow-up, and many have indeed done so.
Over the years I have occasionally received requests from hosting companies to remove comments and negative feedback. I do look at each of these requests, and generally apply the previously stated positioning. I have deleted a few that I never should have approved in the first place, but generally I leave what is listed online.
There is a precedent here. eBay, for example, generally never removes feedback, but they allow recipients to post responses. generally does the same, not removing reviews unless there is a very compelling reason to do so.
But is this the right position to take? What is my responsibility here, if any? The reason I ask now is that a particular hosting company has been asking me to remove comments that they consider to be slanderous and libelous for a couple of years now, and they just sent me an e-mail asking me to do so again. Amongst the complaints are assertions that the comments were posted by individuals whom they claim were never even customers. Of course, I have no way to know that one way or the other. So, if you were in my shoes, what would you do? Should I remove negative feedback any time a hosting company asks me to? Wouldn’t that defeat the entire purpose of allowing feedback?
I’d love your comments on this one.

18 responses to “What Is My Responsibility When It Comes To User Supplied Comments?”

  1. Peter Avatar

    You have to keep them. Just make sure you also allow that hosting company to post their own comments about how great their service is, even though it might not be.
    Then let the readers decide.

  2. Scott Stroz Avatar
    Scott Stroz

    I had something similar happen on my blog last year. A reader posted information that may have been a violation of a NDA the author signed. The company the comment referred to called me and asked me to remove the comment.
    I told the company that I did not post the information, nor did it violate any agreement I may or may not have with the company. I told them that if they contact the author and have him/her request teh comments be editted or removed, I would do so.
    The author did contact me, and the comments were editted.

  3. Dan Wilson Avatar
    Dan Wilson

    User comments:
    IANAL, but this reminds me of this:
    No company wants negative publicity. However, if the premis of your site allows public comments on a service, and you allow the company to respond to any comment they feel is inaccurate, then you have done your duty.
    It would be unduly burdensome to investigate each and every comment posted for accuracy. Removing negative comments at the request of the subject would reduce the utility of your app. You have little choice but to stay your course if you wish to keep honest dialog about hosting.
    While eBay no doubt has its share of fake feedback, it works. Folks seriously evaluating an ISP will read comments and responses before making a decision.
    I prefer to work with a company that knows how to correct mistakes rather than one that thinks it doesn’t make mistakes.

  4. Mike D Avatar
    Mike D

    My experience in similar situations has shown that companies with an aggressive censorship policy tend to have it for good reason – they usually have something to hide and instead of applying effort to solving their core incompetencies, throw as much weight as possible into sweeping user dissent under the carpet. They generally have a strict regime on their own areas of customer feedback e.g a user forum with a ‘what customers think’ (as long as they say good things) that makes them think they can extend the same lazy control into the public domain.
    They have the opportunity to answer the accusations, which it would appear they can’t or won’t – why should you bow to such an ineffective company that can’t argue its case publically but instead resorts to backhand tactics to try clean up its image?

  5. Robert Blackburn Avatar
    Robert Blackburn

    I would just suggest to the complaining company that they are free to refute the slanderous comment within the comments themselves. They are free to claim the commenter was not a customer at all and so on.
    I would also suggest putting up a disclaimer,… better safe then sorry :o)
    If you are concerned about any legal action against you however, here is an alternative: Any company has the option to turn off the comments to their listing (upon request). This would mean no comments are shown, negative or positive. When this is done, the section where the comments would be displayed there is just a message saying "Comments disabled by request of company". Personally, if I am looking for an ISP, I would favor any company who has comments, even if there are a few negative ones mixed in. I simply would not trust any company who asked for the comments to be suppressed, because there is only one reason for them to do that.
    I am not suggesting this be done, simply offering an alternative.

  6. Christopher Wigginton Avatar
    Christopher Wigginton

    When you approve/delete comments, you are acting in an editorial capacity and I believe that you may be making yourself liable to some extent. I don’t know if you remember the Prodigy lawsuit a few years back, but here’s an interesting link:
    I think it would be better to highlight offerings only, but have a rating system where other users could rate the hosting partner instead. They couldn’t come back on you for having something that says "How other Users rate this Hosting Partner" because that would be a complete truth. I would tie the rating to email addresses and check for uniqueness to make sure that the rating system isn’t stuffed.

  7. Ben Forta Avatar
    Ben Forta

    Robert, interesting suggestion. And there is indeed a disclaimer. The page displayed BEFORE the Add A Listing screen contains the followign text:
    Before you begin …
    This ISP list is self-maintained and self-managed. ISPs offering hosting of ColdFusion (and any other Allaire products) may add themselves to the list. But before proceeding, there are a few things you should know:
    * No responsibility is taken for the accuracy of these listings, and accuracy is not checked or verified. It is your responsibility to provide accurate information, and to update your listing as needed.
    * Listings will be manually approved before they are activated. This usually takes less than a day, but it could take longer.
    * Once you have listed yourself visitors will be able to rate your service. Ratings are checked to ensure that they contain no profanity or objectionable material, but other than that they are posted as is and will not be censored or checked. If you do not want your listing rated then you should not list yourself.
    If you agree to these conditions, click here to proceed.
    That text has been there since day 1, notice it still says Allaire (I did not even notice that until today!).

  8. Jason Avatar

    Legally, maybe take a look at what Christopher’s link offers on the Prodigy issue. From a responsibility-to-community perspective, however, I would definitely say that you cannot remove comments at the request of the company without undermining the quality of every listing down the line. I understand there may be underhanded folks out there trying to sully their competitors by posting bogus "I was a customer" comments, but you genuinely have no way to verify one claim over another, and Mike D’s on point, too, that sometimes it will be the company which is underhanded in suppressing honest feedback on sub-par service. Frankly, as with any feedback site, there is also *no* way to verify positive comments … are they just the company’s owners or marketing guys on their yahoo accounts??
    Keep up the good work!

  9. Michael Braly Avatar
    Michael Braly

    Hey Ben — You might find this Wiki on community patterns interesting.
    Check out the section on "Post-facto Moderation (corrective moderation?)". Clay Shirky gave a talk on it at ETech this week —

  10. John Dowdell Avatar
    John Dowdell

    If you feel that this issue is to the point where you might consider taking action, would it be possible to preserve the listing, delete the comments, and say "I’ve removed 17 negative comments on this provider because the firm mentioned legal action and were not confident publicly addressing these comments", or something like that?
    Removing their listing altogether would not be good because people would think it was just unjudged, and a business which doesn’t address public concerns seems weird to me, but maybe you can remove the conflict by removing the comments and providing the context, thereby alerting anyone using your listing…?

  11. Jacob Munson Avatar
    Jacob Munson

    I second the ideas given, where you either remove comments but leave a note, or disallow comments upon request. It is my experience that in public forums like this, the ratings system works pretty well. You will always get losers that like to rate down just to be funny. So there will never be a company with a perfect score. But you can still get value from it because a 4.8 star company is a lot better than a 2 star company. I think most people understand that there’s a risk to trusing public ratings. Another problem is if there is a lack of ratings. I never trust ratings unless there are more than a few.

  12. Ryan Avatar

    I haven’t used the hosting site for a while now because it always seemed a bit dated. A few suggestions
    1) show the date of last edit by the ISP and dates for comments (both may be done already)
    2) remove comments older than 1 year old. Optionally, if the ISP has <3 comments in 1 year, either show 2 years, or manually check the ISP’s website to see if they are live and still hosting CF
    3) require ISPs to update information yearly to remain on the list. I have seen some listings that seem to stop at CF3. Those don’t exactly help anyone and just clutter the list.
    4) consider adding a field/drop down for ISPs to indicate if they offer Flex 1.5 or 2 hosting, etc. Not sure how you would do this for Flex 2 since there would be confusion between the Enterprise Services & the free self compiled Flexbuilder based apps that don’t require the server.
    Overall I like the site, but the combination of dated ISP information (hosting plans, version of CF hosted, etc.) and lack of ISPs that are available with CF but not listed make it less useful.

  13. David Fekke Avatar
    David Fekke

    I used to work for a Newspaper while I was in college. Someone sent in a letter to the editor saying that a Flight Instrutor was incompetent. That Flight Instrutor sued us for libel. Even though we did not write the letter to the editor, we were still libel for publishing it.
    The situation with a web site is a little bit stickier because there is no editorial process. It is not like you approve of all the comments before they go onto your ISP list.
    I guess you could fight it and win. Personally, I would rather feed my kids before paying a lawyer.
    If it was me, I would remove both the comments and the ISP from the list.

  14. Alexander Tsoukias Avatar
    Alexander Tsoukias

    Having grown up the Hellenic style, my father acts as if he knows everything which led me to really consider both parties reasoning before making a decision.
    Looking at it from the hosting company side, it would be unfair if the bad feedback came from a competitor (which u can’t confirm) or from a bad customer (regardless of the "customer is always right" saying, many times we are bad customers and expect crazy things for each $ we spend).
    If on the other hand the customer is right about his feedback and is trying to save the rest of us (something which u again can’t verify) it would be unfair not to publicly list the feedback.
    Now, if you have nothing else to do, you can play the judge role and have both parties get involved before you approve the message or so…
    To be honest I prefer you spend your time on that FLEX/COLDFUSION AS/DB-CFC/AS wizard you didn’t show us in New York 😉

  15. David Avatar

    Offer to declare martial law, establish a caliphate, and declare yourself "President for Life". If that’s too much post a disclaimer that the comments are not yours and do not represent your personal opinions, and refer said company to article I of the U.S. constitution.

  16. David Avatar

    ok, seriously, it’s a double edged sword. This company accepts the positive free advertising of being on the list, but not negative feedback about their service.
    I think it would be fair to grant them the right to be de-listed, or add an editors comment that they dispute some of the comments left on the site (in general, not specific).
    As an overall comment, I don’t think you are responsible for moderating a free, public information site. It would be terrible to be a small company, working off thin margins to be disparaged, but they will have to present more than jsut their "good word" for you to get involved more (possibly, the cost of your time to investigate their claims).

  17. PaulC Avatar

    Having just used that list to help narrow down a list of hosts, I’d say you’d be doing a disservice to people using it by filtering comments beyond ones that aren’t authentic. In fact, the criteria I looked at first were the number of comments, followed by the overall rating.
    Letting and ISP dictate which comments can be removed defeats the purpose. Allowing an ISP to briefly repond to negative comments would probably actually improve the system, because it would give some better insight as to what went wrong in that case, and how it was dealt with. I’d be more apt to go with a company that admits making a mistake, and did something to make sure it’s not likely to happen again.

  18. Marty Avatar

    Ben, remove the comments, and then put a header at the top that says ‘Any negative feedback will be removed by this company’

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