Highlights from the Legal Guide: Getting Your Words and Other Content Out to the World

This is the second in a series of posts calling attention to some of the topics covered in the recently launched Citizen Media Law Project Legal Guide. The first topic we took up was choosing a business form for your online publishing activities. In this post we discuss the various issues, both legal and practical, that arise when you select a platform for your online speech.

So you've decided that you want to publish online. There is a wide range of platforms you can use to get your words, video, and other content out to the world.

Of course, the easiest way for you to get online is to simply go to a website that allows user comments or forum posts and add your two cents to the mix. If you want a more permanent home -- and one you can control to some degree yourself -- you will want to consider whether to join a service such as Blogger, TypePad, Livejournal, or even MySpace (yes, we know it's a social networking site), that will host and manage your content for you or whether you want to create your own, independent website. Each option has its advantages and disadvantages. Here are some of the things you might want to think about in deciding which platform -- or platforms -- you will use:

  • Ease of Use Services that provide blog-hosting capabilities or social networking pages/profiles (we will call all of these services "blog-hosting providers") are often the easiest way to find a home online. These services tend to be very simple to use; everything you change and all content you add is done through the host's easy-to-use web site interface which makes it very easy to add text, photographs, or other media. The layout of your page or pages is typically created through various templates and basic formatting options, although some sites allow access to the template code for advanced customization. These sites are often free, but additional features--such as a greater ability to customize the site's format--may come at a premium. Creating your own website, on the hand, can be much more complex depending on how much customization you do. The Citizen Media Law Project site runs on Drupal, which is a free, open-source content management system with a great deal of flexibility. See the section on Creating a Website for more information about what you will need to do to create your own site.
  • Advertising: Many blog-hosting services have built-in advertising capabilities that you can implement with the click of a button. Certain sites may be affiliated with certain advertising companies (AdSense or BlogAds), that you can easily incorporate into your blog. Some of these sites, however, may restrict you to the advertising services they provide, some may not provide any, some may allow you to bring advertisements in yourself, and some may completely disallow ads. If you create your own website, you can decide for yourself what advertising you want on your pages.
  • Anonymity: Perhaps the major advantage of blog-hosting providers is that they often provide the easiest way to blog anonymously. Many of these services do not require names or credit card numbers for registration, so by signing up through an anonymizing service using a free e-mail account, you gain greater protection from being unmasked, even in the face of a subpoena to the hosting service. For more about anonymity, see the Anonymity section of this legal guide.
  • Credibility Concerns: The very ease of their use may lead many blog-hosting services to project a less professional appearance than a well-designed, customized website. Also, the web address you're given by one of these services may result in you not being taken as seriously as you would be if you had your own domain. For example, some blog-hosting services give you an address that they choose, like "www.blogservice.com/3k6jrv," or they append your name to their URL, like "www.blogservice.com/yoursite" or "yoursite.blogservice.com." One possible way around this is to register a domain name like "www.MyBlog.com" and have that redirect to your bloggingservice.com page. This allows you to promote your site using your "www.MyBlog.com" while retaining the ease and cost benefits of using a blog-hosting service. For more information on how to do this, see the section on registering a domain name in this guide.
  • Functionality: With blog-hosting services you're operating on their site, so you don't have access to all of their site code to make your page do exactly what you want it to do. It can be difficult to do much more than a straight, chronological record of posts with, perhaps, a collection of links in a side bar and a place for users to leave comments. Furthermore, while they are customizable to a degree, that customization is limited compared to the possibilities provided by a conventional website. You can find a summary of the functionality you can expect from the bigger blog-hosting services on the Using a Blog-Hosting Service page.
  • Networking: You should consider whether you are trying to reach people you already know personally, a specific community of interest, or the public at large. If you are interested in reaching only your already-existing social circle, you might want to consider some of the publishing-type functions on social networking sites, such as Facebook's "Notes" function. Another option is to use an online discussion group tool, such as Google Groups or Yahoo!. Starting a blog or website can allow you to reach a wider audience, as any Internet user can find and read your site. Of course, you can aim your blog or website at a smaller community of interest as well. Some blog-hosting services, through community identification features and other affinity services, allow you to tap into a community of users with similar or related interests.
  • Revenue Generation: Some blog-hosting services don't allow any advertising. Many that do allow advertising have deals with particular companies. While this is a good start, it can sometimes make it difficult to bring in alternate or additional advertisement systems. It's important to consider where you want to go with your blog in terms of expanding your revenue model. While a simple Google AdSense sidebar may seem fantastic early on, you should consider your future needs for expansion.
  • Terms of Use: Perhaps most important in terms of this legal guide, each of the services mentioned in this guide has extensive terms of use that govern who owns the content and data you and your users create, when the service can remove content that it deems to be problematic, and what your rights are if a dispute arises. For more information on the legal issues you should be aware of when choosing an online service, see the section on Legal Issues to Consider When Getting Online.

As you read through this section you might be asking yourself what the difference is between a blog-hosting service and a web-hosting service. Generally speaking, a blog-hosting service will permit you to publish only a blog on their site, whereas a web-hosting service, depending on which service you choose, will allow you to create a site with almost unlimited functionality. Of course, some blogging software, such as WordPress, will allow you to create a "static blogpage" without any chronological entries as your home page. In terms of what the reader sees, there is no difference between such a site and a standard website, but you will still be limited to the functionality inherent in your blogging software.

Once you've made a decision about what type of platform is best for you, it is time to get online. Go to one of the legal guide sections listed below for more information:

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