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Fighting Back Against Internet Business Terrorism

Posted by Eric Parzianello on November 5, 2009

There’s not a national radio, television or newspaper company that hasn’t been sued for allegedly publicly maligning someone’s character or making libelous statements that could be perceived to damage a company’s reputation. But maligning a reputation on the internet has become another matter altogether as companies have fewer options restore their good name in the face of angry internet missives from customers, partners or employees.

There are now countless blogs, websites and even Facebook pages dedicated to doing nothing more than dumping misinformation and destroying the reputations of individuals and companies. And unfortunately, with all the legislation and legal strides that have been taken in the last 20 years to rein it all in, the world-wide web continues to be more like the wild west.

Our legal marketing consultant, Mark Gilman, President of Decus Strategic Communications, handles not only legal marketing, public relations and strategy in his business, but works with clients who are attempting to restore their online reputation. “Outside of some tricky legal maneuvers, the best defense is offense,” he says. “You’ve got to really ignite an extensive SEO (Search Engine Optimization) campaign to try and make sure you are negating the reputation damaging stuff online by posting a flood of positive stories.”

One of his clients is a good example of a small business with few resources to fight people with a lot of free time who spent countless hours trashing his company’s reputation on a website called www.complaintsboard.com and on Facebook. “He refers to this as internet terrorism,” said Gilman. “They’ve single-handedly destroyed his reputation to the point where he can no longer raise money for his company because of all the negative chatter.” Gilman said that his client, who refers himself as a “serial entrepreneur,” helped launch several national companies. Like many small business owners and start-ups, Gilman’s client was immediately successful but then hit a cash flow crunch causing him to be late in paying one of his vendors.

Gilman said that the vendor set himself on a reputation bashing campaign which issued threats and called his client a coward, crook, narcissist, scam artist and even a drug dealer. In addition, the vendor even took the time to send threatening e-mails including this actual e-mail (complete with typos and other misspellings) which Gilman provided:

I came by to see you last week, Coward. You closed your office down…what a Coward you are. We will find you, Criminal… and you will pay me for the work I did one way or another. You can run but you can’t hide forever. The Internet is awesome…it sort of follows you with out much effort. You wife and kids must be so proud of you. having to run and hide like the low life you are. The good news is, I’m not violent, but I bet you have a few pissed of people that are much less tolerant than I am…that’s probably why you are running
It would have been so much easier to cut me a check…in hind site I bet your rethinking that move, huh?
Take a look in the mirror, Sociopath…do you like what you see?
My LEGIT businesses take me to [your state] frequently, so don’t worry…we’ll be seeing each other again 🙂

Gilman related that his client took this e-mail to the police, but was dismissed because no “physical threats” were made. His client is obviously worried about his own safety and that of his family. “It really makes you wonder how safe anyone is in these situations,” said the client. “You really can’t look for background on my company right now without running into all the negative stuff he’s created online,” he added. “So banks and potential investors see this stuff and they run. It doesn’t really matter if it’s true or not. It’s out there and there’s nothing I can do about it.” But angry vendors seek a place to post their anger. The website complaintsboard.com is happy to oblige. The company apparently makes its living from Google ads and carefully placed web advertisements for Visa when complaints against companies like Bank of America are posted. And it’s not as easy as asking the folks at complaintsboard.com to take the misrepresentation, attacks and character assassinations off the site.

The only registration information regarding the Complaintsboard.com domain lists a post office box in California. So what does a guy like Gilman’s client do to fight someone who spends his days trashing his company’s reputation and threatening him personally other than hiring people like Gilman who clean up reputations online for a living?

A suit for defamation is always an option as shown by a recent Tennessee filing. In that case, reported in the Knoxville News Sentinel, “a Knoxville marketing firm filed a $2 million libel lawsuit against a former client claiming comments posted on social media sites Facebook and Twitter have hurt its reputation.” In those types of actions, court orders to remove certain defamatory posts may be sought. These cases require knowledge of the identity of the poster which cannot always be determined when posters assume anonymous user names.

Determining the liability of the website or blog operator is another option, though operators of blogs are generally immune from liability for defamatory statements posted on their websites. However, as one blogger notes in an article devoted specifically to complaintsboard.com, if the operator or blogger contributed to the posting, they may still face liability:

“In 2003, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a listserv moderator and operator of a website which allegedly published defamatory statements provided by a third party was eligible for immunity under the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Batzel v. Smith, 2003 US App.LEXIS 12736 (9th Cir. 2003). However, if the online service provider plays an active role in soliciting information from users that leads to the defamatory act, the operator may not be protected by the safe harbor provisions of the CDA. In Carafano v. Metrosplash.com, Inc., a federal court ruled on the application of the safe harbor of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). The defendant in that case operated a matchmaking website known matchmaker.com. As part of its service, the defendant collected profiles of singles based on an extensive questionnaire. The plaintiff sued Metrosplash because of a false profile of her which an unknown user had posted to the website. The court ruled that by creating the extensive questionnaire, Metrosplash played an active role in developing the information that had been posted. Furthermore, the court ruled that Metrosplash was an information content provider and thus not eligible for the CDA’s safe harbor provided to “interactive computer services.” Carafano v. Metrosplash.com, Inc., Case No. CV 01-0018 DT (CWx) C.D. Cal. 2002) (subsequently reversed by appeals court). While operators of blogs and services are generally immune from such liability, the more active the service is with its member’s, the greater the likelihood of potential liability as a publisher of defamatory materials.”

These issues can be troubling especially for start-ups which have not otherwise established a solid reputation and can easily overcome a few postings. When it becomes a problem, you should consult with your business advisors.

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