By Alison Henders-Green
The phenomenal rise of chatrooms, blogs and discussion threads recently has taken the internet by storm. Networking sites containing chatrooms have come from nowhere to being in the top five global internet sites in a matter of months - and their rise shows no signs of abating.
Yet for many in the business world, such sites can seem unrelated to their business interests and reputations. However, some of these sites have exacerbated the age-old problem that while reputations take time to build, they can be destroyed in an instant. Now all it can take is the click of a mouse to send defamatory comments around the world.
The growing use of such sites gives people the opportunity to publish to a worldwide audience their thoughts on your business, organisation, or even you as an individual. Clearly this is not a problem - indeed it is beneficial - when you have a satisfied customer, but what of the occasion when a customer is disgruntled, or malicious, and decides to publish his, or her, negative comments to a global audience via the internet?
Businesses therefore can’t afford to ignore this new phenomenon, as the ephemeral nature of the internet means individuals often feel free to damage your reputation, protected by the scale and anonymity it provides. However, if the comments are defamatory, businesses can take steps to protect their hard-won reputation.
The first stage before taking action is to make sure the comments you have found on the internet are indeed defamatory. This can be difficult to prove but essentially a comment will be defamatory if it tends to make ‘reasonable’ people think worse of the its intended target.
Because Internet Service Providers (ISP) are now aware they can be held to be the publishers of defamatory material, leaving them liable for damages in defamation proceedings, the first step should be to contact the ISP to alert them to the comments and request immediate withdrawal of the material.
Such requests usually result in the defamatory material being removed quickly, limiting the damage caused by the defamation and from the ISPs point of view, reducing the possibility they themselves will have proceedings brought against them.
Whilst removing the defamatory material will limit the effects of the comments, there may already have been sufficient damage to reputation, even resulting in financial loss, that the business or organisation can decide to take action against the person who posted the material on the internet. This may be to recover damages, to seek an apology or simply to deter similar action by other parties in the future.
Where the person who posted the comments is easily identifiable, taking action is a straightforward procedure. However, if the information was posted anonymously, for example through discussion forums, taking action may not be such an easy option.
The ISP may have information which would help identify the author but there may be issues with data protection and the privacy policies of the ISP. Perhaps the most challenging hurdle is that of jurisdiction - for example if the business or individual has been defamed on a website with origins in the USA, then any action may be subject to laws with the United States and may necessitate the engagement of solicitors/attorneys both within the UK and the United States which could clearly prove costly.
However people should not feel disheartened that results can sometimes be hard to achieve, as plenty of individuals and businesses have successfully taken action against the perpetrators of defamatory comments posted on the internet.
For example Michael Keith-Smith, a former parliamentary candidate for the UK Independence Party, took action in relation to defamatory comments posted on a discussion board run by Yahoo. Mr Keith-Smith obtained court orders enabling him to identify the individual who posted the defamatory remarks, and then take action against the individual for defamation - he was awarded £10,000 in damages.
Any business faced with this dilemma should obtain early legal advice from a solicitor who can advise if he/she believes that the client has been defamed, and if so, the various ways to seek recourse, the economic viability of taking action, the likely result in terms of compensation by award of damages and the way in which the matter can be pursued by court proceedings.
As the internet continues to gather pace, and chat rooms, discussion sites and online communities continue to gain popularity, the risks of being defamed on the internet are increasing. However businesses should not feel powerless against the might of the internet - a defamatory comment will be so however it is made, and as the ever-growing case law is showing, there are ways and means of taking action to protect your reputation.
Alison Henders-Green ishead of Commercial Litigation and a partner in Dolmans solicitors