Suppose you are a moderator of a social media website such as Reddit, or something in the Stack Exchange network, or similar.

Users can report inappropriate, abusive, or illegal content. For example, child pornography. As a moderator, you receive such a report and view the indecent images. Are you then breaking the law?

What legal provisions are there to protect the moderators of social media websites who triage such content?


3 Answers 3


Section 230 (of Title 47) grants immunity from civil liability under certain circumstances, so the website is not liable to the porn-distributor for taking down their images. There are also criminal laws pertaining to child porn, such as 18 USC 2252. It is not a crime to "see" child porn. Instead, the crime is defined with reference to one who

knowingly receives, or distributes, any visual depiction...

of child porn. Therefore you cannot be prosecuted if you do not know that the image is has the prohibited characteristics (is child porn). See US v. X-Citement Video, 513 U.S. 64 for discussion of th scienter requirement. The surrounding circumstances (the report) at most indicate that the moderator has some reason to believe that it is porn, and the immediate deletion of the material supports the conclusion that the moderator's action complies with the law.

Paragraph (c) of that law also provides a defense, in case of prosecution:

It shall be an affirmative defense to a charge of violating paragraph (4) of subsection (a) that the defendant— (1) possessed less than three matters containing any visual depiction proscribed by that paragraph; and (2) promptly and in good faith, and without retaining or allowing any person, other than a law enforcement agency, to access any visual depiction or copy thereof— (A) took reasonable steps to destroy each such visual depiction; or (B) reported the matter to a law enforcement agency and afforded that agency access to each such visual depiction.

  • 1
    But if a user flags "this is child porn and should be removed" then the moderator would knowingly have received the image. Common sense says they should not be liable, but I'm not sure how clear the law actually is. Also using fake claims of porn as an excuse to remove other content is a security issue -- if the moderator verifies that the claim of porn is real, are they knowingly looking? If they archive the image for law enforcement's separate purposes, are they storing/distributing it?
    – spraff
    Dec 12, 2022 at 18:52
  • 1
    He might suspect. It turns out that people make false claims, so a moderator has to actually check and not just accept a claim by a random person. Your point about preserving for law enforcement does lead to a further clarification.
    – user6726
    Dec 12, 2022 at 20:19

Possession of illegal materials for the sole purpose of delivering them to authorities or destroying them is not considered to be an offence.

The same is true for e.g. a student finds a bag of illegal drugs or firearms and turn it to their teacher, who then turns the material to authorities. Neither the student nor the teacher is guilty of offences such as possession of controlled substances or posession of firearms without licence.

Criminal possession requires knowledge of the criminal character of the item in issue, and a measure of control over that item. Control refers to power or authority over the item, whether exercised or not. There are cases where an individual has the requisite knowledge and control, but cannot be said to be in possession for the purpose of importing criminal liability. These cases will include cases in which a person takes control of contraband exclusively for the purpose of immediately destroying it or otherwise placing it permanently beyond the person's ability to exercise any control over it. In such cases, the intention is solely to divest oneself of control rather than to possess.

R. v. Chalk, 2007 ONCA 815 (CanLII), https://canlii.ca/t/1txps, retrieved on 2022-12-13

It is up to the Crown to prove that the accused has the knowledge and control required for criminal possession, which may follow from circumstantial evidences.


Reddit is under Section 230 immunity, which immunizes web pages that provide resources for hosting third party content and moderate said third party content (U.S. law, but considering they're a U.S. based company, foreign governments enforcing their laws only if Reddit has a physical presence in said foreign nation). Thus, a reddit moderator who has to delete a post with illegal content is immune from civil/criminal liability. At worst, Reddit may face a court order to turn over information related to the identity of the person who posted the content to federal authorities, but given the scenario in question, reddit might self report and willingly hand over the information to law enforcement officers on their own initiative.

  • Reddit moderators are not Reddit employees, and many of them do not live in the US.
    – wizzwizz4
    Mar 26, 2023 at 14:44

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