How to Protect Your Business against Internet Defamation
The Internet is, as the cliché goes, "a marketplace of ideas." Whether a person has an opinion on politics, commerce, or even the show they saw on TV last night, there is always a forum to spread their opinion on, and that opinion will be available worldwide.
But the ability to instantly spread information worldwide is of a neutral benefit. It is a tool-as good or as bad as the person who uses it. And there are people out there who, although in the minority, are still a significant enough number to cause havoc, who would use the ability to spread information as more of a tool to spread "misinformation."
If you own a business, it is quite possible that a competitor could use the tools available on the Internet to spread falsehoods about your business, such as accusing you of dishonest practices or discrimination, to name two of the most common false statements made about businesses by those wishing to sabotage them. Making a defamatory statement like this on the Internet and broadcasting it for the world to see is known as libel, and it has two major elements: First, that the published of it knew it to be a false statement, and second, that the false statement resulted in a loss to the party whom it was about.
Some examples where you might encounter a libel include:
-Internet forum postings about your business
-Facebook comments on your business' official Facebook page
-Personal "protest" websites which dedicate themselves to making false claims about your business
-Mass e-mails about your business
These are just a few of the methods someone may use to discredit your business, but they are among the most common.
So, how can a business protect itself against libel?
There are a few strategies which can be beneficial to someone in protecting themselves against a libel. The first and most obvious is litigation. Libel is, after all, a tort in most jurisdictions around the world regardless of what kind of legal system they might use. In order to take action against someone for a libel in the United States, you will want to retain the services of a lawyer and serve them with a civil action alleging the libel. If you don't know who the libeler is, as is often the case in Internet defamation cases since publishers may choose to post under anonymous names, then you will initially file the case against a John Doe and then determine what their real name is during the case's discovery process from ISP records and other relevant material.
If you are successful in your case, you will likely be awarded monetary damages and, often, and injunction from the court ordering the person to remove the offending material and refrain from libeling you in the future, non-compliance with which can result in them being fined and/or jailed for contempt of court.
The other major method for defending against libel is purchasing a reputation management service. Reputation management services often try to include threats of legal action against publishers of libel as a part of their service for preventing your business from appearing bad in search engine results. However, they also work on promoting the good things about you and your business through Search Engine Optimization. The result is that even if a libelous comment about your business is not taken down by the publisher, it may never see the light of day because it is pushed so far back in search engine results by optimizing other, more favorable material about you. This helps protect your business while avoiding the costly litigation that might come with a suit over libel.
Regardless of how you want to deal with Internet defamation, you should remember to keep a few things in mind when you discover libelous material about you:
· Keep a list of URLs of all the defamatory material about your business. This will be used as evidence for court if you file a lawsuit, or for takedown letters if you use a reputation management service.
· Never try to get the content removed by threatening the publisher. Victims of libel are often tempted to let their tempers get the better of them, but it hurts them in the end because the publisher can report the threatening person to the police.
· Compile accurate records of your company's sales from before and after the defamatory content first appeared online. This will help you to establish the loss suffered by your business as a result of the defamatory material, and will assist the Court in calculating your damages.
· If the content is posted on a third party publisher's website by an independent user account, such as a person posting on a blog hosting site or social network, you can ask the site to take the content down, but they are by no means obligated to do so, so be polite about your request. In the United States, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects webmasters, hosting companies, and others who provide content from being held responsible for what another user publishes on their website.
Remember that the most important step when you discover that your business has been defamed is to obtain legal counsel as soon as practicable. Defamation law is a complex matter and should not be approached lightly. A qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction will be familiar with all of the relevant laws, and be able to guide you in determining the best approach in dealing with the defamation that you face.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Aaron M. Kelly
Aaron M. Kelly is an attorney based in Scottsdale, AZ that focuses on Internet Law, Business Law, and Bankruptcy. Aaron is an experienced Internet lawyer and regularly speaks on topics involving Internet law.
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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.