Internet Defamation Is Growing More Common

March 3, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — The incidence of Internet defamation is on the rise simply because an increasing number of people are accessing the Web.

Attorney Tom Kuiper of Kuiper Orlebeke said the primary culprits tend to be bloggers and chat room participants. It’s very easy to start a blog or a chat room, and that makes it easier to disseminate negative opinions that attack the reputation of a person, business, product, group or government by means of false accusations.

It’s a struggle against competing civil rights — the individual’s right to freedom of speech and the individual’s right to seek legal redress when wronged. Internet defamation is a growing concern in the corporate world because more and more businesses have company Web sites, Kuiper said.

If a person dislikes Company X, for instance, he can create a CompanyXstinks.com Web site where similar-minded people can go to rant about the company. During an Internet search for the company, the link to that site pops up along with the link to the company’s legitimate Web site. The really dedicated “critics” are also highly computer literate, from what Kuiper has seen. They know how to Google bomb — arrange it so that if someone keys in a search for Company X, the very first site that comes up is CompanyXstinks.com. What people say on CompanyXstinks.com isn’t necessarily valid or factual, but it’s out there for anyone to see, Kuiper said.

“Everybody has a First Amendment right to their opinion,” Kuiper observed. “It’s just so hard to counsel clients without any clear lines as to where protected First Amendment opinion speech ends and where legally actionable defamation starts.”  

For the victim of Internet defamation, the hard part is deciding whether or not to take legal action. The first question Kuiper has to ask a client is: Do you really, really want to pay thousands of dollars getting into this fight over the truth?

“Sometimes the Internet critic is attacking the company’s product or pricing, and in order to defend that we have to file a lawsuit — which is public — and if we’re going to say the comments aren’t true, they’re going to get to say, through discovery, ‘Tell me about your pricing, your cost structure, your balance sheet, your profit and loss statement. All of that becomes fodder for the other side. Do you really want that business to be aired? That’s the real struggle that businesses are having.” 

In some cases it can be difficult to pinpoint who the offending party is because that party may be blogging or posting claims on the Web anonymously, although sometimes the blogger doesn’t bother to hide his or her identity, Kuiper said. On behalf of a client, Kuiper will write a stern letter and threaten a lawsuit. That might be enough to cause the offending party to dismantle the Web page, but there might be 20 or 30 like-minded critics out there.

“As soon as they see his Web page come down, they view it as the evil corporate giant using its economic clout to coerce the poor and squash his First Amendment rights, so they just put a mirror page up,” Kuiper explained. “You push the ant down one hole and it pops back up in another, and it keeps popping up and popping up.”

Kuiper said that regardless of the costs, some clients feel the lawsuit approach is worth it.  To them it’s not about the money; it’s about turning off the negative content that’s out there and saving themselves the grief and lost business that the offending party has caused. LQX

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