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Responding to Online Defamation

By Sonjui Kumar Email By Sonjui Kumar
July 2012
Responding to Online Defamation Defamation is a false and damaging statement about another to a third party with the intention of causing harm. Laws against defamation, also known as libel (if written) and slander (if spoken), exist to protect the reputation and goodwill of both individuals and companies.

 

We often hear about celebrities and other public figures being victims of defamatory statements. The damage to a business can be even worse, potentially crippling a thriving company if not addressed immediately.

The popularity of social media like Twitter, Facebook, and Yelp has made it easier then ever for ex-employees, disgruntled customers, or competitors to publish complaints or damaging information that can severely hurt the image of any business, from local retailers to multinationals. The internet provides a perfect cover for these activities, allowing a person to post damaging statements instantaneously and often anonymously.

Many popular sites specifically cater to this population, giving people forums to vent their complaints against companies. Such forums range from rating sites for doctors and lawyers to travel sites targeting hotel chains and airlines.

For most businesses, handling and correcting legitimate customer complaints is a task in and of itself, but trying to address false statements on the Internet is a much more unique and difficult problem since a simple Google search can bring false and derogatory comments to the attention of customers, investors, business partners, and employees. Businesses in this situation quickly find out that there is no system or authority that can filter out false postings on the internet. Meanwhile a company can suffer tremendous loss to its reputation and goodwill while the defamatory statements remain online.

Defamatory statements on the internet present a number of unique challenges for the business under attack. Firstly, the accuser (the person making the defamatory statements) has the option of posting anonymously. Secondly, the Communications Decency Act of 1996 protects third-party publishers, like the website on which a person posts the defamatory statements, from liability. So how does a business protect itself from false statements made on such an expansive and free outlet as the internet?
• If the posting is on a limited number of sites, an essential step is to turn to the website itself for help. Sometimes a request to remove a post that is either obviously defamatory, irrelevant, or just false on its face will work. Although easy to do, these measures are not always effective against a persistent accuser who could post statements on other sites or re-post following the removal. The website may also help identify the person making the posting, since it will have some login information for every party using the site. Another approach is to simply post a response to the defamatory statement on the same website, providing facts as to why the accuser’s statements are wrong.
• Another option is to hire a cyber investigation company to track down the anonymous accuser. Once the name and address of the person is identified, the accuser can be stopped by more traditional legal means used to fight defamation, such as serving them with cease and desist notices or filing a lawsuit for damages.
• Businesses can also use reputation management companies. These internet-based businesses use a variety of online tools to counteract the negative information that has been posted, such as pushing the positive comments and mentions of your business higher up in search engines. These companies also offer monitoring services that will alert you immediately when a negative statement has been posted anywhere online so that you can respond accordingly.
• Businesses can also turn to lawyers specializing in this area, first to determine whether a statement is in fact defamatory and then whether any relief can be sought legally under the federal or state laws that may apply in a particular case. Monetary damages or a retraction of the statement are common remedies sought in lawsuits. Unfortunately the time and resources required to fight an online defamation case are often a barrier. Plus, the filing of a case often does more harm to the business by bringing additional publicity to the defamatory statements and allowing them to be published as news.

As with any crisis that can affect a business, the key is to be prepared and understand what can or cannot be done. In this particular arena, it is important to be informed and continuously monitor the information about your company that is available on the internet. As difficult as it may be to acknowledge, it is better to be informed so that you can address the issue as quickly as possible.

[Business Insights is hosted by the Law Firm of Kumar, Prabhu, Patel & Banerjee, LLC. Sonjui L. Kumar is a corporate, transactional attorney and a founding partner of KPPB Law. She primarily focuses on serving as general counsel to privately held companies assisting them with all legal matters, including corporate governance, contracts, shareholder matters, mergers, and acquisitions.
Disclaimer: This article is for general information purposes only, and does not constitute legal, tax, or other professional advice.]


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