Internet defamation is becoming a serious problem on the internet and many victims are at a loss for how to handle it or what action to take.
Generally it can be very difficult, if not impossible to remove content from the internet. Even if a court orders the content is defamatory the Communication Decency Act (“CDA”) protects websites where such content is published from responsibility. The CDA grants immunity to websites for defamatory content posted by 3rd parties on their site. This means that if someone posts negative content about you on facebook, you cannot in most situations successfully sue facebook.
If you are the victim of internet defamation you are not without options. You can hire a search engine optimization (“SEO”) specialist to make positive content about you and attempt to push the negative statements down in the google search results. This usually has limited success and as soon as you stop paying the SEO specialist the negative content will move back up the search results.
Another option is to hire an attorney to file a defamation or libel lawsuit. If you know or have some idea of who posted the content you can name them as the defendant and serve the summons and complaint on them. Unfortunately many people who post defamatory content do not use their real name or make such posts anonymously. If you do not know who posted the content, you will have to take some actions to try to locate their identity.
In some states this can be accomplished by filing a John Doe suit and subpoenaing the website where the content was posted for the defendant’s identifying information. In other states such as New York an application for pre-action discovery must be filed and the court will order the website to provide the identifying information. Additionally, it may be necessary to utilize a computer forensic investigator to try to locate the identity of the defendant with such information as their IP address or email address.
Unfortunately, even utilizing the above methods it may still be impossible to identify the defendant who posted the defamatory content. In these extreme cases it may be possible to convince a judge to order service by publication. In such cases, instead of personally serving the defendant with the summons and complaint, the court allows the plaintiff to publish it in a newspaper or newspapers for a requisite number of weeks. Upon fulfilling the publishing requirements you must wait a specified amount of time and can than file a motion for a default judgment, assuming no defendant comes forward. Of course to accomplish this it must be shown to the satisfaction of the judge that you conducted “due diligence” in your efforts to successfully locate and serve the defendant.
If you are successful in locating the defendant, serving them, and getting a judgment you will probably be awarded some type of monetary damages and this is always the goal.
Even where damages are not possible the largest advantage to legal action is that once a court issues a judgment many reputable websites will remove the content on their own and even where they won’t the major search engines such as yahoo, bing, and google generally will remove the content from their search results. This means when someone searches for you or your business on the internet the defamatory comments won’t appear in the results and is pretty much as good a result as not having the content exist at all.
It is important to note that legal action and attorneys cost money. However, the internet is fast becoming the most common way for people to do research on companies and individuals. If you are a business and negative posts rank very high in search results it can be very damaging both financially and psychologically. Although SEO specialists usually charge a monthly fee, they usually do not get the results you want and when you stop paying them the negative content goes right back up. This is because they don’t deal with the actual issue, that being, the infringement of your legal rights to be free of false and disparaging speech. In addition the monthly fee for SEO specialists quickly add up and will with time often surpass attorney’s fees. The advantage to legal action is that you stand up for your rights and it gives you a lot of leverage, no one likes to go to court particularly a defendant who thought they would get away with posting negative lies about you on the internet. Often they will accept whatever terms you offer to avoid having to hire their attorney and go through the stressful and potentially embarrassing litigation process. In addition, when you have a defamation order the negative content will be removed completely from the search engines not just pushed down and who knows you may even win substantial damages from the defendant.