Monthly Archives: May 2005

Liability and Indemnity

As more institutions allow students to upload content into their webspace, more legal issues arise with regards to the institutions’ responsibility vis-a-vis the law and JANET regulations.

Previously, institutions only allowed lecturers to upload course content and perhaps to have some private webspace. This area has lately been expanding with the use of the technology for blogging, P2P sharing, and allowing students to present themselves in web- or social spaces. Naturally this raises questions of risk management in terms of policing and monitoring.

Defamation is only one risk that institutions have to face up to, so how do we deal with it? Important to know that JANET is not liable, but every institution with hosting servers is.

Unawareness can serve as a defence, but only if you don’t have a policing, editing, moderating, or monitoring role, where it would be reasonable to expect that you know what is going on. If students are signing up to acceptable use policies, then one should be reasonable safe without policing. This defence is obviously invalid in course spaces when they are moderated by a tutor. Important is that there are clear and visible complaint procedures, a swift response for taking down offensive content and disciplinary procedures in place. This requires students to also sign up to a clause allowing content to be taken down!

According to Gavin Sutter in a JISC legal presentation there are three levels of involvement: (1) mere conduit – where the institution only provides the tool (such as Internet access, or messaging) but activities are conducted outwith the LAN; (2) hosting – where the offensive or protected content actually resides on the uni servers; and (3) actual knowledge – where you know or are expected to know what’s going on.

Risk management strategies suggested are: – if in doubt take it down, – handover student details for legal proceedings, – report illegal content immediately when you become aware of it. High visibility contact details may help as may a notice saying that the student will indemnify the institution for any damages. It may also make good sense to take away anonymity from users in university chatrooms.


Accessibility and the Learning Environment

Accessibility has always been something of a scare to the online learning community. Can you cater for every possible disability, every grade of dyslexia, have you got disability hardware in place, etc. etc? Many legal firms benefit greatly from this insecurity.

I heard two talks recently about accessibility in e-Learning. One at a JISC Legal Conference with the usual “be afraid – be very afraid” message. Legal obligations here and there, the vague “reasonable effort” statement that lawyers might turn against you, DDA and SENDA acts and so on. The other was a refreshing new view with two core message:

1) Anything you do in electronic format is very likely to be *more* accessible than in non-electronic format.

2) You don’t have to provide an online alternative for inaccessible online services – they can be offline!

The latter means, that if a student cannot access say an online payment service that you provide – they can pick up the ole phone. All the institution has to do is to see that there is someone at the end of the line who knows what to do, and inform students with disabilities of the appropriate alternative service.