Laws that regulate the Internet have been on the books for years. There are laws protecting copyrighted material and laws regulating Internet commerce. And there are laws about posting defamatory content. And yet there has been a problem with online defamation almost since the Internet’s inception.
Defamation, says attorney Emily Doskow, is “a catch-all term” for any statement, written or spoken, that damages a person’s reputation. Many Internet users believe they can write anything about anyone. They are mistaken, but most lawyers agree that successfully trying an online defamation case is not an easy task.
“Defamation law,” Doskow explains, “tries to balance competing interests: On the one hand, people should not ruin others’ lives by telling lies about them; but on the other hand, people should be able to speak freely without fear of litigation over every insult, disagreement, or mistake.” Disagreement, she says, is important to the functioning of a free society.
Online defamation is so common that it is almost quaint to look back on early enthusiasts, and how they viewed the new medium. The online world was still finding itself in 1996 when a scientist named Matt Ridley said, “The Information Revolution is taking us back toward our better social instincts.” Around that same time, MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte opined that the Internet could very likely lead us to world peace.
What To Do If You Are Attacked Online
Those ideals, for the most part, have long since been trashed. For all its many benefits, the Internet has become overpopulated with uncompromising crusaders and self-important trolls who do not hesitate to stir up trouble on just about any subject imaginable. If you find yourself the target of online defamation – if there are false statements about you that damage your reputation – remember that you have the right to defend yourself. The first thing you should do is contact the host website and demand that the false statement about you be deleted.
Most sites have Terms and Conditions that ban the posting of defamatory material, so you are within your rights to demand that defaming posts be removed. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar: it may be as simple as writing a polite email to the website and explaining that one of their users has libeled you.
If that doesn’t do it, It might help to have a letter written by an attorney on your behalf. That still may not have the desired effect: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act generally safeguards Internet Service Providers (ISP), hosts and websites from any liability from the postings on their sites. “No provider or user of an interactive computer service,” this regulation states, “shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
If the ISP won’t take down the defamatory statement, you are not without recourse. If you are able to identify who wrote it, your attorney can contact that person directly and threaten to sue. The threat of legal action is often enough to get someone to act. If there still is no satisfactory response, then you can always proceed with the lawsuit.
But first, you have to know who made the defamatory post. And this is one of the reasons it is so difficult to successfully try online defamation lawsuits.
The Anonymity Factor
It is common for Internet users to hide their real names, either with a username that obscures who they really are, or by posting anonymously. There are online articles and entire websites the show users how to be anonymous, and tools like The Onion Router that are promoted as ideal ways of protecting your privacy online.
A lot of people find this very attractive. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, a quarter of all Internet users have posted comments anonymously. That same study indicates that the younger you are, the more likely you are to mask your identity: forty percent of those between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine said they post without revealing their real name, while only nine percent of those over the age of sixty-five did.
The reasons for all that anonymity are almost as varied as the people who use the Internet. They range from protecting themselves from advertisers who scrape personal information, to engaging in behavior they might not want to admit to, like downloading files illegally or visiting pornographic websites. Some Internet users, according to a study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, have perfectly understandable reasons for hiding their identities. They cited the example of a teacher who set up an anonymous online community for students who were learning English, and wanted to practice their language skills with one another.
Many of those in the Carnegie Mellon study admitted to using anonymity to search for personal information about other people, or for flaming them. If you are attacked anonymously online, take heart: anonymous posters cannot completely cover their tracks. If you are determined to track down someone who has posted defamatory material about you, there are usually ways to find that person’s identity. If you have initiated a lawsuit then host websites can be subpoenaed, and you can obtain what is known as Personally Identifiable Information (PII) about the anonymous poster. From there, you can get the perpetrator’s IP address, and from the IP address, you can find out where the defamatory posting was made, such as a home or work address.
n more complicated cases, it may take the services of a cyber investigator to identify the person who attacked you online. A skilled cyber investigator can usually determine where the defamatory online statements came from and from whom, and link that to information provided by the ISP in response to the subpoena.
If all else fails, you can always try to influence search engines like Google with a strategy known as Search Engine Optimization, or SEO. If a search of your name shows defamatory information about you at or near the top of search engine results, you can flood the Internet with positive information. In the process, you bury all of those negative results. If you are being falsely accused of criminal behavior, for example, you can post material that emphasizes all of your achievements in life, such as professional awards or charitable work.
This strategy is most effective when done by SEO professionals, like those at InternetReputation.com, a Denver-based company specializing in removing and suppressing negative online information. They are quick to remind you that you have the right to defend yourself online.
Trying online case not easy: http://www.reputationhawk.com/onlinedefamation.html
Ridley and Negroponte quotes: “A Billion Angry Brains: The Four Types of Online Hostility.” http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/billion-wicked-thoughts/201307/billion-angry-brains-the-four-types-online-hostility
“The Ultimate Guide to Staying Anonymous and Protecting Your Privacy Online.” http://www.extremetech.com/internet/180485-the-ultimate-guide-to-staying-anonymous-and-protecting-your-privacy-online
“Anonymity, Privacy, and Security Online.” http://www.poynter.org/2013/25-of-people-have-posted-anonymous-comments-pew-finds/222912/.
“Why Do People Seek Anonymity on the Internet? Informing Policy and Design.” http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~kiesler/publications/2013/why-people-seek-anonymity-internet-policy-design.pdf