The publication or broadcast of any libelous or slanderous statement about an individual or business that can be proven to be false and published with the intention of harming that entity's reputation is considered to be defamation. Online defamation is the publication of such statements made on any Internet based media including blogs, forums, websites, and even social networking websites. While many Internet users believe that they are free to say and do as they like while on the Internet, this is untrue and the same defamation laws and regulations stand for online defamation as they do in any form of media.
Shell Life and Internet Slander
While defamation, in the shape of slanderous and libelous comments, has been around for many decades, the problem has been exacerbated by the advance of the Internet as a reporting and social tool. While comments made in newspapers and even on the TV have a limited shelf life, those made on the Internet can remain on the website where they were first added as well as on other blogs and websites and even in the cache of search engines for many more years.
Rise of the Social Network & Internet Defamation
As social networking and blogging have become popular tools for Internet users to voice their opinion and get involved in discussions, online defamation cases have also been on the rise. While there are very few or no specific online defamation acts, libel lawsuits that cite the Communications Decency Act have been successfully been tried in courts around the world. Also, there are rumors that some countries around the world, especially the UK, are set to release specific online defamation laws that deal specifically with these laws.
Decent Communications: Communications Decency Act of '96
The Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) was actually established to try and deal with the publication of pornography and other adult content freely and widely available on the Internet. However, it was also created in a bid to combat any indecent and defamatory content found on websites and other online publications.
Section 230 of the CDA is the section that is perhaps most relevant to online defamation. It attempts to deal with the question of an ISP's liability to content that is stored on their servers. Although it does not specifically outline all instances, it does contend that an ISP is not responsible for the information published by their users unless and until they are informed of any infringement; at this point, the ISP should act to remove the content or face legal action themselves.
The Communications Decency Act of 1996 can be viewed in full at the FCC website - http://www.fcc.gov/Reports/tcom1996.txt
Problems with Proving Online Defamation
Much of the difficulty that surrounds successfully winning an online defamation case is brought about because the plaintiff must first prove who the publisher or writer of the statement is and, secondly, that the statement is false and written with the intention of causing damage.
Tracing an individual that has posted a defamatory comment can prove very difficult. It is certainly possible to find out the details of a computer that was used to publish a statement or post content. However, if this is a public computer then it is almost impossible to narrow down the search in order to find the culprit. With Internet access being afforded to computers in Internet cafes, libraries, businesses, and other public areas, this makes it very difficult to find the source of the illegal content.
When Defamation Lawsuits Go Awry
Successful Lawsuits Gone Bad
The court case results only show a partial picture of the level of success that can be achieved. The ability to publicly recant a statement online is not the same as it is through other media and the libelous claims can still remain on the original website or blog. The statements may have also been published on other blogs and references on numerous other websites as well as being found in the cache of search engines. Success in court does not help to alleviate these problems and in some cases the problem has actually worsened.
Personal Opinion or Personal Attack?
It should be noted that personal opinion on any topic can be posted on blogs, websites, and other sources but according to defamation laws and statutes, libelous comments cannot be thinly veiled as personal opinion and judges and courts will consider each statement or comment accordingly to ascertain whether or not it truly is an expression of personal opinion or is, in fact, a defamatory comment.
The Internet Never Forgives; Never Forgets: Statute of Limitations & You
Another point of note is that a statute of limitations does exist for online content, and while these statutes do differ in some states, the most common statute lasts for a period of twelve months. This period starts from when the comment is first posted online since claims that publishing on the Internet is the equivalent of continuous publication have already been rejected by most courts.
The Value of Media Liability Insurance
Media liability insurance can be obtained through many insurance companies and these policies are created to specifically deal with the costs of defamation through online and offline sources. These can prove to be an inexpensive way to help counteract future problems but costs of around $3,000 and upwards per annum can make them too expensive for smaller blogs and websites. These often also include a considerable minimum deductible of twice the value of the annual premium (a minimum of $6,000 in some cases) to afford coverage of up to $1M.
Legal Analysis of Taking Legal Action
Legal action should be considered a last resort because it can prove very costly and results can vary. However, if this does appear to be your final option then legal action can start with "cease and desist" letters and a number of other steps, eventually culminating in a lawsuit that involves damages and punitive costs. If all else fails then this may prove to be your only option at setting the record straight.
Combatting Online Defamation
To conclude, defamation and defamatory comments are as much a problem on the Internet than in other forms of media if not more so. However, the same rules govern online publications as newspaper and other forms of media so there are steps and actions that can be taken to remedy the situation. Ensuring that hate sites and defamatory comments appear lower down search listings by employing sound counteractive measures should be your first consideration but if legal action is necessary then there are records of numerous successful legal campaigns for you to take heart from. Also---you might consider a reputable online reputation defender to help stave off negative content.