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I'm intending to make and publish an experimental platform where user-generated content (UGC) is uncensorable and permanent. Although tech promotes itself as such, like the omnipotence paradox, man cannot create something that man cannot destroy. Caveat being, I technically have no capacity to moderate UGC, rather it's within the jurisdiction of very complex decentralized infrastructures. Content of this immutable nature is virtually unchallenged.

I wish to make this service privacy respecting and transparent. In the hypothetical this is used for illegal activity, what are the repercussions, and what's within authorities' jurisdiction?

  1. Can they shut every aspect of it down? If so can I be reimbursed for expenses?
  2. Can they charge me for illegal UGC, if I'm not the creator/host or have an ability to delist it?
  3. Can they demand I modify/redesign my service model? E.g. to collect user data / to create a backdoor to censor UGC?

And adding to those questions, if I moderate UGC via the application/interface/frontend level (which is rather evadable) will the project itself be allowed to operate? And could I be prevented from developing/distributing the original source code?

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  • For context, I care about the service being allowed to operate as intended, not about protecting illegal UGC.
    – weg
    May 29, 2022 at 8:35
  • You also do realize that censoring is strictly speaking only when the government does it, yes?
    – Trish
    May 29, 2022 at 8:46
  • @Trish I suppose semantically yes, what I meant is, social media platforms are usually required to moderate illegal activity
    – weg
    May 29, 2022 at 8:53
  • so you are talking totally unmoderated?
    – Trish
    May 29, 2022 at 9:26
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    It is unclear technically what you would be doing, and I think those details will be relevant. The original uncensorable social media is usenet, and neither the developers nor hosts have been found liable for the vast amount of illegal and otherwise infringing content on that. Other examples include diaspora and Mastodon.
    – User65535
    May 29, 2022 at 10:00

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You can design whatever this system is (leaving aside jurisdictions without First Amendment-like law that lets you design to your hearts content), the problem comes in implementing. The main legal question is whether you are operating a website. A website operator has to comply with various laws that require them to remove content. For example, if you operate a website that allows users to distribute content that they upload, they can distribute copyright-protected content, and you can be held liable for copyright infringement. DMCA in the US provides a way for you to not get sued, but you have to be able to remove putatively infringing content, so you could get sued if you can't remove illegal content. This may also include legal troubles over e.g. defamatory content where a plaintiff gets a court order to remove the content – you can't plead "I can't it down" if the court orders you to do so.

Napster was sued for copyright infringement and racketeering for facilitating law-breaking by others ("secondary infringement"), and in MGM v. Grokster the Supreme Court annonced the general principle that

One who distributes a device with the object of promoting its use to infringe copyright, as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement, going beyond mere distribution with knowledge of third-party action, is liable for the resulting acts of infringement by third parties using the device, regardless of the device’s lawful uses

Grokster's problems arose because they clearly intended the software to be used to violate copyright law, whereas it is unlikely that Github will get sued because it is possible to use the platform illegally.

So it really matters exactly what this "platform" is and what your relationship to the platform is. Describing a system is generally not illegal, realizing and maintaining one can easily be.

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    Thank you for your thorough answer Yes, I can see different legal interpretations for different implementations... I would make a follow up to this, but it might require formal professional consultancy.
    – weg
    May 29, 2022 at 19:27
  • @weg indeed, contact a lawyer who will advise you of pitfalls like the need to delete orders in case of DMCA or GDPR
    – Trish
    May 29, 2022 at 19:33

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