By Oliver Smith, Keystone Dispute Resolution and Litigation Team

Oliver Smith explains the options, when your business or personal reputation is at risk through false claims posted on the internet.

The increasing popularity of social media has led to a rise in claims of online defamation, according to research carried out by legal information publisher Sweet & Maxwell. However, the number of cases reaching court remains low as many claims are just not economic to pursue.

Many online wrongdoers have little or no money or assets or have them well hidden. Taking a case to court can end up giving the wrongdoer exactly what they want; to drive the victim mad for months on end and make them spend a fortune. However, according to Oliver Smith, businesses and individuals can find cost effective remedies.

Many online harassment cases happen when two people with a long-standing business or personal relationship fall out. One or both may vent their anger publicly through what they think is the anonymous environment of the internet. Knowing each other well they often having inside information about business activities or personal lives. Putting such information online can cause serious damage to business and personal reputations as well as long term stress and distraction from the running of a business. These cases need to be handled carefully to avoid "pouring fuel on the flames".

The first step is to confirm the identity and address of the wrongdoer. Often, the list of suspects is short. Having your lawyer contact them in the right way and point out that they will be traced sooner or later encourages some to confess and give up their campaign. This can save both parties substantial legal costs.

Otherwise, most people can be traced using web tools and a few simple applications to the court for disclosure of data. Then one has to choose the correct "weapon" to stop the hostile online activity.

There is a battery of statutes and case law that can be deployed by an astute lawyer to stop the hostile online activity. Amongst many others, these include:

- the Protection from Harassment Act
- the Data Protection Act
- the Misuse of Computers Act
- the law of nuisance

In some cases a less aggressive approach, such as mediation, is appropriate. This lets each party "get it off their chest" and move on.

This area of law can be a minefield for the inexperienced, leading to unintended long running and expensive cases. A classic example was the "McLibel" case, where two penniless health campaigners were sued for libel by McDonalds. They defended themselves without lawyers and raised numerous scientific issues, costing McDonalds millions of dollars and creating a PR disaster for the company.

In the worst case, the claim could be struck out with an order for costs against the victim. However, by using creative legal thinking one can find cost effective ways of stopping a sustained "cyber-attack" and nip it in the bud before it gets out of control.

This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. It should not be used as a substitute for legal advice relating to your particular circumstances. Please note that the law may have changed since the date of this article (First published September 2011).