The Internet has numerous chat rooms, message boards and communities where libel is likely to, and does, occur. Users of the Internet feel that their identity is protected by their anonymous "username," and they are likely to "flame" individuals, employers, or products. Many online auction sites have feedback sections, and Internet users may post negative feedback that is not true. This type of defamation can be devastating to those it affects. Business reputations online are increasingly affected by the nature of the feedback posted online. Negative feedback is often posted by competitors rather than actual consumers, solely to gain a competitive advantage.
Making false statements in writing or through a visual presentation about a business or person to third parties is known as libel. Given the nature of the internet, libel has become easier to commit.
What Types of Internet Outlets Does Online Libel Cover?
Online libel includes anything written or visually represented online. This includes online forums, auction sites like eBay, consume review sites such as Yelp, social media including Facebook, Twitter, online videos and/or webcasts.
Note that libel charges require third party viewing. A third party is anyone other than the person making the false statements and the person who is the subject of the false statements. Communication by e-mail or text can be considered libel if the receiver isn’t the subject of the false statements.
Are Internet Service Providers Responsible For Online Content?
In 1996, the government passed the Communications Decency Act (CDA) which protects suppliers of online computer services from being responsible for any information or comments posted by users of the Internet. The CDA was enacted to preserve the robust nature of Internet communication and to prevent too much government interference in that communication. Another important reason the government enacted the CDA was to encourage Internet Service Providers (ISP) to regulate their content internally.
Court decisions after the CDA was passed have interpreted the protection the CDA provides to computer service providers. A very controversial decision from an appellate court in California required an ISP that is informed of libel to remove the libel after a reasonable amount of time. By failing to remove libel that the ISP is aware of, the ISP is held responsible the same as the person who actually wrote the message.
It is unsure whether or not other courts will follow this decision. If they do, online companies will have to pay much more attention to complaints of untrue, malicious statements posted on their sites.
Does a Username Protect my Identity Online?
Even though Internet users have the anonymity of a "username," their identity can still be revealed. Anyone who is the victim of libel online can bring a lawsuit, and subpoena the records of the website that hosts the messages, using those records to track the identity of the person posting the comment.
What if I Repeat Libel that I Read Online?
There is no difference between repeating libel you encounter online and libel you encounter elsewhere. The rule is the same: if you knowingly repeat libel (i.e., if you know the statement is not true, and it is malicious), you will be held legally responsible.
Are There Any Defenses To an Online Libel Charge?
Those accused of libel have a number of defenses to them:
- The statements made were true. Libel only applies to false statements.
- The statements are opinions. Opinions are generally not prosecuted. However, a reasonable person must believe that the statements are opinions and not a libel attack.
- No third parties saw the libel.
- The subject of the libel was not harmed by the making of such statements.
Do I Need A Libel Lawyer?
If you are being accused of libel, it is important to speak to a government attorney as quickly as possible to formulate a defense. If someone is making libel statements about you, it may be necessary to find an experienced lawyer to successfully take the offending message down.