Internet Law

Libel Online

The internet has a reputation as a forum for candid, freewheeling and often profane discourse. The anything goes attitude and seeming anonymity of the space can bring out the worst in people. Even thoughtless or foolish comments however can have serious consequences. So even as you browse behind a screen name you need to think before you comment.

You Aren't Anonymous

Let's get this straight. Web sites track IP addresses. Web sites will give up IP addresses to law enforcement and to subpoenas issued in civil cases. Your internet service provider will provide account details of IP addresses under the same circumstances. So what you say on the internet easily can be tracked to you.

The Internet Didn't Repeal the Law of Defamation

Yes, you can be held liable for defamatory things you say on the internet. It happens all the time now. Many examples come from negative feedback left by parties to transactions on internet auction sites, like eBay. In one case, a Florida attorney sued a dissatisfied buyer for libel. The buyer left negative feedback on eBay, saying the attorney was a "bad seller, he has the ethics of a used car salesman." The attorney sued the buyer for defamation of character.

The internet differs somewhat from traditional mainstream media when it comes to defamation and related lawsuits. The Communications Decency Act gives immunity to internet service providers for comments posted by their users. This immunity extends as well to web sites that permit user comments. If the web site doesn't prompt the illegal comments or behavior, it will not be liable for it. Of course, this doesn't protect the person leaving the offending comment.

Advocating Illegal Behavior Isn't a Good Idea

A bitter labor dispute sets the backdrop for another case study in internet usage. Some Northwest Airlines flight attendants advocated and organized a sickout by posting a call to action on a web site. This was an unfair negotiation tactic prohibited by labor laws. It was effective, causing the airline to cancel numerous flights during the holidays.

The airline responded by filing a lawsuit against the union and some of its members. It used discovery to find the computer on which the sickout was planned and the records of the bulletin board where postings advocating the sickout were left. From these it was able to identify those flight attendants who conspired to break the law.

Disparaging Your Competition Isn't Smart

Trying to gain a competitive edge or take tactical advantage in a business situation by anonymously spreading rumors about, or bashing, a competitor on the internet has a tendency to backfire. There have been cases where a company successfully sued a competitor for posting negative comments about the company or its products on the internet.

Yes, you can be sued for defamation for what you post on the internet. Your postings advocating illegal conduct may also run afoul of the law. It's not a good idea to disparage a rival's business online. Keep it clean, and you probably won't even need an alias. Don't count on your screen name to give you a place to hide. 

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Somebody's posting menacing comments about me on a web site. What can I do about it?
  • Can I be sued by making honest comparisons between my product and my competition's?
  • If I really did have a bad experience with an eBay seller, why can't I leave negative feedback? Is there something else I can do to warn others about the seller?
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