Defamatory Liability on the Internet

Legal Compliance Resource
February 4, 2013 — 1,102 views  

Combating illegal or offensive online statements can be difficult for both legal and practical reasons. When it comes to practicality, the anonymous feature of an online statement presents a problem in identifying the individual responsible for illegal and offensive communication. In terms of legality, the first amendment rights for free speech provide protection to the statement that can be demeaning, offensive, and annoying.

But the first amendment rights do not protect individuals from making libelous statements or speeches that invade an individual’s privacy. Defamatory statements can harm an individual’s business and reputation. A person making a defamatory statement can be sued if the plaintiff presents that proper data as proof. But this data can be hard to acquire if the statements were made on the Internet. The plaintiff may have to go through a complex procedure to know the location, time, and name of the person who made the defamatory statement.

Anonymity on the Web

The facility to anonymously send and use information on the Web creates a significant, but not impossible, hurdle of imposing liability on Web users. Companies can enforce their policies on their employees and prevent confidential or controversial information from being posted on the Web. But brands and companies cannot stop external users from posting such messages on the Internet.

In such a case, an individual who wants to take legal action against the anonymous act of defamation can do so without knowing the name of the defendant. After filing the suit, the plaintiff can acquire information about the anonymous defendant. The time and efforts taken in recognizing the defendant will vary in different cases depending on the information retained by the site where the statement has been posted and the plaintiff’s ability to use the information to find the defendant.

Legal Remedies

Usually, because of the protection given under the First Amendment Act, an individual cannot file a suit against the other just because the individual was offended or distressed by the statement. The statement must meet certain other requirements as well. In cases of online statement, the two categories that make defamatory statements are one that invades privacy and the other that involves defamatory speech. Such areas can be complex with many defenses and exceptions.

Invasion of Privacy: A person who publicizes information related to the private life of another is liable to invasion of privacy if the information that has been published is highly offensive and is of no use to the public. An individual who places another person in false light can also be sued for invasion of privacy if the false light portrayed is highly offensive.

Defamatory Statements: The individual responsible for the statement can be sued for defamation if he has made an unprivileged or false statement that, in nature, is defamatory material and has been published on the Internet by mistake. The above law of defamation can be applied to various online activities chat rooms, emails, and social networking sites. Defamation related to invasion of privacy can be classified into two categories: slander and libel. Slander is defamation in aural or oral form while libel information is defamatory material in visual or written form.

Defamation Recovery

For defamation recovery, the plaintiff must prove that the statement was published with a significant level of recklessness or fault. The level of recklessness or fault depends on the nature of the plaintiff, as in if he is a private, public, or official figure. The plaintiff who wins the defamation case can recover damages from actual loss (loss in business revenue) or emotional distress from the defendant.

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