Defamation and the Internet: A Thorn in the Side of Businesses
The Internet is a wonderful research tool for finding reviews about businesses. For instance, a person looking for a new mechanic can research online to see what former customers have to say about the service they received. A growing number of websites cater specifically to people wanting to read and write reviews of businesses.
Most businesses would love to receive only positive reviews, but a negative review is likely inevitable. Yet, businesses and business owners should not have to deal with one category of reviews: the patently false review.
When untruthful reviews appear on the Internet it may take many hours to have those reviews removed, but their damage (i.e., costing the business potential customers) may already be done.
Maliciously false reviews can rise to the level of being considered defamation.
Elements of Defamation
To sue someone who posts false information about a business on the Internet, certain elements of the claim must be met:
- Made – It may seem basic, but a statement must be made.
- Published – The statement must be made in a way so that a third party either hears or reads (in the case of online statements) the statement.
- False – The statement must be false; true statements even if harmful are not considered defamatory.
- Injury – The statement must cause an injury; this can include hurting a business’ reputation or financial wellbeing. In some cases, the law presumes damages for certain statements.
- Unprivileged – The statement must be made in a context that is not privileged (protected or shielded), such as in court.
When a statement rises to the level of defamation, the business may choose to file a lawsuit against the person who posts the libelous review. However, who can be sued for the statement is narrowly limited and may only be available against the poster of the statement and not necessarily the website hosting the statement. Websites that allow or encourage business reviews will often be protected by a federal law called the Communications Decency Act of 1996, and as long as the website does not aid in the creation of the statement, the CDA says it cannot be held liable for the defamatory statement.
Righting the wrongs done by a defamatory statement on the Internet can be a long and complicated process, especially if the poster of the statement did so anonymously. Consult with an experienced attorney if your business is the target of false statements on the Internet to discuss your legal options.