As professionals, we are diverse. None of us has all the answers. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. We have areas we are known for (fair or not). We have skills that people don’t know we have. We are always improving and growing.

There is one semi-persistent blind spot I encounter as I talk with community professionals. It’s not the ability to look at numbers and use them to make a decision. It’s not ROI. It’s not growing activity. It’s not scaling a community.

It’s the law. Specifically, the law as it relates to our profession. Even if you have a legal department to run things through – which many don’t – an understanding of the law empowers you to confidently take action and manage your community.

I am based in the United States and so, this post will take that perspective. But if you aren’t, the point remains, and I would seek out experts for your country (and the two people I talk about below might be able to point you in the right direction, if you ask them).

The Important Stuff

Laws and legal issues can be very intimidating. But if you get past that feeling, it’s actually pretty easy to become a well-informed community professional. There are a handful of key areas of law that impact our communities on a daily basis. You should familiarize yourself with the following:

Section 230

Though some are advocating for its repeal, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is crucial for our work. It gives us the ability to moderate content without fear of liability. In other countries, moderation is sometimes seen as an act of endorsement, e.g. if you leave content online, you may as well be the person saying it. Not so in the U.S., where we are free to exercise discretion.

Perhaps more importantly, Section 230 protects us from liability for what someone posts on the platform we manage. The act ensures that the author of the words is the one liable.


The Digital Millennium Copyright Act is constantly criticized, for any numbers of reasons, but it’s actually quite useful for us. First, it protects us from copyright liability (update: if you properly designate a DMCA agent). Let’s say you run a community that is well-managed, but you miss that one post where someone uploaded an MP3 for a Madonna song. After it is reported to you, as long as you take proactive steps to remove it and penalize the account holder, you are permitted safe harbor.

Next, it also helps if someone is ripping off your community’s content. You can ask your members if they would be willing to designate you as their DMCA agent (as easy as receiving a “yes” via email), and then you can file a DMCA notice on their behalf to get that content removed. This assumes that the website is hosted in the U.S. or in a country where a similar notice-and-takedown system would apply. You only need to bring together a few members to effectively penalize the content thief and protect your community.


Short for “Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage” (amazing, I know), the SPEECH Act ensures that any defamation claims made in courts outside of the U.S. cannot be enforced in the U.S., if liability would have been prevented by Section 230. If they can’t sue you here for defamation, they can’t participate in what is referred to as “libel tourism,” and find a nation with more sympathetic laws.


If your community targets people under age 13, you’ll want to work with attorneys and child safety experts, if you aren’t one of those yourself. There are just too many things you can do wrong.

Even if they are not your target audience, you should at least be aware of COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. If you plan to allow children 12 and younger on your community, COPPA provides a structure for receiving permission from their guardian. The main thing you’ll want to do is use software with support for it built-in.

If you don’t plan to allow them at all, you still need to keep COPPA in mind  The FTC is very clear on the fact that, if you become aware that a member is younger than 13, you must remove their information from your community immediately.


If your community emails members, you’ll want to be in compliance with CAN-SPAM, an act that covers the sending of commercial email. Your software might already comply with it. If you use any reputable email marketing service, they will force compliance. If not, it’s pretty straightforward. Even if you have never heard of CAN-SPAM, you are probably complying with most of it already, as long as your emails aren’t deceptive and you provide an easy means of unsubscribing from them.

Free Speech

The first amendment doesn’t apply to your community. You set standards for conduct and participation and enforce those standards. The first amendment applies to the government – and the laws they make – not you. It’s important to know what free speech actually means.

Fair Use

It’s good to have an understanding of fair use, specifically the “four pillars.” People misuse the term “fair use” constantly and take it to mean, “I can use whatever I want as long as I put a disclaimer.” Having community guidelines, that include a reasonable policy for using and discussing the works of others, will save you time from having to deal with copyright complaints.

If you grasp just these laws, you’ll most likely (depending on the type of community you manage) knock out 99% of the legal issues you’ll encounter when managing your community.

I’m not an attorney or an expert on the law, and this isn’t legal advice, but I believe that we can all be legally-savvy when it comes to the communities that we manage.

2 Great People to Follow to Stay Up to Date

If you want to stay in the loop when it comes to legal issues that impact the internet and, quite possibly, your community, there are two people I’d recommend you follow:

  • Jonathan Bailey is a copyright consultant and the author of Plagiarism Today, a wonderful resource focused on content theft, copyright infringement and plagiarism. He often writes about issues that impact online communities.
  • Eric Goldman is a professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law and authors a fantastic blog where he constantly talks about legal issues that apply to our work.

If all you do is scan their work, you’ll be very well informed. I’ve spent time talking to both, and they are also very willing to help if they can or, at least, point you in the right direction on an issue. I’ve learned plenty from both of them myself. If you aren’t in the U.S., they might know someone in your country who can help. If not, with a little searching, I’m sure you can find some valuable resources.

A knowledge of the law may not be the most attractive part of a community professional’s repertoire but that doesn’t mean it’s not exceedingly helpful, reassuring and empowering.