Group Administrators Are Responsible for Online Posts, Israeli Courts Rule

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Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the F8 Developers Conference in San Jose, April 30, 2019.
Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the F8 Developers Conference in San Jose, April 30, 2019. Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

While group administrators are not obligated to delete every post deemed harmful to a third party, they must conduct a thorough investigation into their credibility – this is the conclusion arising from rulings in Israeli courts in recent years addressing the degree of responsibility borne by a Facebook group administrator for items posted by its members.

Thus, it is not only the writers who bear responsibility, but also the group administrator, who is equipped with tools to control and filter the group’s content. On the other hand, these rulings were made by lower-level courts; no binding legal verdict has been ever set by the Supreme Court.

In February 2016, the Rehovot Magistrates Court ruled that posts appearing on a Facebook group may be considered as published in the mass media. Therefore, the person administering the group account is responsible for libelous content, even if the post was written by someone else.

In that case, the head of the Mazkeret Batya local council sued an individual for slander appearing in posts in several Facebook groups. The plaintiff asserted that the statements posted by the defendant, for which he refused to apologize, portrayed him as a habitual liar and as not paying municipal taxes.

The court ruled that since the defendant had testified that he was capable of removing posts (and had even done so), he should be viewed no differently than the editor of a newspaper or other media outlet. The court therefore placed the responsibility for slanderous statements on the Facebook groups he ran, without diminishing the responsibility of the actual posters. Even though the court ultimately dismissed most of the lawsuit, the reasoning remains in force.

Another issue that has arisen in the courts is what constitutes a reasonable time for a harmful post be be taken down. The answer depends on circumstances, although even when it has been aired only briefly, it may still be the responsibility of the group administrator. A September 2018 decision by Haifa Magistrates Court (Avisar vs Potter) considered a suit filed against the administrator of a Facebook group called Residents of Motzkin and a post that had been put up during the night. The defendant saw the request to remove the post at 7:00 P.M. the next morning and removed it at 3:00 P.M.

The judge ruled that it had been proved that the administrator had the tools to remove posts with the press of a button. However, the administrator had hesitated for unexplained reasons, and even put up another post that morning containing a picture of the slanderous post, and therefore bore responsibility for the publication. The judge ruled that “one should be cautious in imposing too heavy a burden on site managers who do not have the ability to bear said burden, that it could cause harm to freedom of expression - only due to the chance that the post that was alleged to be slanderous would not be immediately taken down.”

Since the defendant did not consult with a lawyer and did nothing when he was informed of the post’s airing online, he was ordered to pay 20,000 shekels ($5,720) in damages and court costs.

The verdicts place a significant burden on administrators, thus many will opt to take down a post on demand even before getting legal advice. Amir Vang, who heads the regulatory practice at the law firm Rotenberg & Company, says that if you accept the logic of the Avisar verdict, then Facebook, which possesses the tools and the opportunity to remove posts, bears responsibility.

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