With the explosion of social media, businesses and individuals are becoming daily victims of anonymous online defamation. With tools like Twitter and Topix, now everyone has a megaphone to say whatever they want to the widest possible audience. Many say this is freedom of speech at its best. But as with anything, this freedom comes at a high price.
Putting bloggers on equal footing with traditional journalism has many upsides, but now we are beginning to see the downsides, as well. Online reviews of restaurants and movies, for example, are often helpful. Generally, those reviews state opinions rather than facts, such as: “This movie was terrible,” or “This restaurant has the best food.” Opinion cannot constitute defamation. But websites today also allow patients to review doctors, students to review teachers, and customers to review everything from iPads to car repair service. When these reviews include untrue facts, they may constitute defamation. For example, a review expressing a diner’s opinion about how food tastes is mere opinion and does not constitute defamation, but a review claiming that a restaurant had a health department rating of 65 when the actual rating was 97 is an untrue fact that likely could serve as the basis of a defamation claim.
Sometimes the negative comments are minor and the best advice is to brush them off. But other times the comments are serious and deserve a stronger response, such as when they indicate you committed scandalous or criminal conduct, that you are untrustworthy, or that you have committed malpractice. These comments can damage your reputation and harm you economically if they steer business away from you. When that happens, especially if it happens more than once from the same person, you may have grounds to assert a claim of business interference, and not just defamation.
One of the biggest challenges with the Web 2.0 is the fact that most online reviews and comments are made anonymously. If that’s the case, how can you protect yourself? How can you even find out the identity of the poster?
Fortunately, victims are not without recourse. Most people think that they can say whatever they want online and that no one will ever know who said it. This is incorrect. There are ways to find out the identity of online posters, but you need to act quickly since Internet service providers (ISPs) often destroy records of online activity after 180 days.
If you find that you are the victim of disparaging comments made online, you won’t get very far suing the website that hosts the comments (known as user generated comment or “UGC”). Hosting websites are immune from liability related to UGC under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. But you can have your attorney send a cease & desist letter to the website demanding that the comments be removed. Sometimes websites comply; other times their terms & conditions do not allow them to comply without a court order.
When you want to find the identity of the anonymous poster, and not just have the comments removed, you can also file a “John Doe” lawsuit against unknown defendants, empowering you to subpoena the host website for the IP address of the person posting the comments. From there, you can determine the ISP. Because the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 prohibits ISPs from disclosing personally identifying information about Internet users to non-governmental entities without a court order, the next step is to obtain a court order allowing you to subpoena the ISP for the identity of the poster. Recently, a court in Nashville refused to allow an anonymous poster to hide his identity, and allowed the victim to move forward with its subpoena of the ISP.
Finally, responding to anonymous online defamation often requires a multi-faceted approach. Recently, one of my business clients found several comments online that accused its employee of criminal and scandalous conduct. Given the context, the client needed legal advice on not just the social media issues, above, but also with employment law issues. If defamatory comments are made that threaten to damage your reputation and your business, don’t just sit back and take it. Instead, consider your options in fighting back.