Internet Defamation: What Can You Do and Who Can You Sue?

It is hardly surprising to anyone that with the proliferation of social media, people say more about each other online than ever. The internet has come a long way since the dial up days of the 1990s to now, where almost any private individual is an ersatz “publisher” of content on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, etc.

Correspondingly, there also continues to be an evolving difficult issue as to how the content is regulated and the results when someone crosses the line into defaming someone online for the public to see.

Defamation (libel when in print and slander when merely oral in nature) is the tortious civil wrong of causing damage to another’s reputation by the publication of an outright false statement that may be controversial or salacious. Yet, the hidden “keyboard warrior” nature of social media via the internet has done little to curb society’s broadcasting tendencies to make such offensive or derogatory comments about others all day, every day. It could be about a soon to be ex-spouse, a pupil posting about a teacher, professional athletes about a teammate sharing the same locker room, or a vice president about his secretary—shameful conduct occurring almost under the protection of the concept that its acceptable because it’s on the web and everyone does it.

Essentially, the internet has made it easy for anybody to communicate with almost anyone. This access has a dark side – the average person’s reputation or even a small business’s hard-earned goodwill can be destroyed in the instance of hitting the return button. Because “cyber-libel” has become so commonplace, everyone must deal with this issue, not just the rich and famous celebrities or politicians. Now, a disgruntled consumer, an angry ex-spouse, a business competitor, or toxic gossiper can vent their frustrations about their victim electronically quickly and anonymously. The defamatory statement can linger online “forever.” Thus, the harm to reputation and character may be tangible and lasting. Many people are unable to obtain employment because of a mere Google Search showing the history of someone saying something defamatory about them.

The law does not provide blanket protection or immunity for internet defamation, but it does create some limitations. Even since the beginning of the internet age, Congress recognized an inherent unfairness in blaming internet providers for content submitted by actual private citizens doing the publishing. The Communications Decency Act of 1996, both by its intent, and its sections (namely Section 230) that have survived United States Supreme Court review over the years, still provides immunity for civil liability against internet providers for statements made by third-parties who use the internet provider’s services. By simple but logical analogy, one cannot sue the telephone company, if somebody calls somebody a derogatory name or makes a defamatory statement to another during a telephone conversation. The preliminary target will always be the issuer of the statement. However, this does not mean that the internet provider service cannot still be a necessary target of information under remedy of law.

Oftentimes, internet providers will agree or can be compelled to take down or remove the offending defamatory statement. That is the most common form of litigation compulsion at issue today. Sometimes, in the investigation to properly identify an anonymous on-line defamer, an action must be started against the internet provider service to invoke subpoena power so information can be gathered to discern IP addresses and locations. Moreover, there are other strategic considerations and legal maneuvers that can help with one’s “online reputation management.” You may have to consider publishing a refutation, sending a cease and desist notice, or hiring the right experts to “bury” the defamation so it does not rank high or easily surface in typical Google Searches..

By Maya Murphy, P.C., Connecticut
Law Firm Website:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Joseph C. Maya, Esq.
Joseph C. Maya is the Managing Partner at Maya Murphy, P.C., and handles cases involving these legal issues in New York and Connecticut. Mr. Maya can be contacted at (203) 221-3100 ext.110.

Copyright Maya Murphy, P.C.

Disclaimer: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication at the time it was written. It is not intended to provide legal advice or suggest a guaranteed outcome as individual situations will differ and the law may have changed since publication. Readers considering legal action should consult with an experienced lawyer to understand current laws they may affect a case. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

Find a Lawyer