In an era where the Internet has become a source that we turn to for information, guidance and advice, it is important to know your potential liability for posting information in chat rooms, websites and reviews. In the “olden days” (15 years ago and more), we turned to friends, neighbors, family members and the Yellow Pages when seeking referrals for anything from contractors and landscapers to doctors and lawyers. Now, we often rely upon Internet websites and reviews for such guidance. Can we and should we rely on such reviews? What if the reviews are false? What if the reviews are planted by a competitor? As the law catches up to technology, it appears that an individual may have liability for posting false reviews.
Legal causes of action of defamation and slander compels the awarding of damages against an individual who makes a false statement about another which causes monetary or other damages. Such false statements must be communicated to a third party in order to be actionable. When such false statements are in written form (or posted on the Internet), the specific cause of action is called libel. If an individual engages in a protracted effort to take down or destroy a business by disseminating such false and defamatory statements, such an individual may also be responsible under a theory of tortious interference with prospective economic advantage. All of these causes of action could include the awarding of punitive damages to the extent that intent can be shown.
Significantly, when individuals intentionally post negative or false reviews on the Internet, they typically do not provide their actual names and identities and often open an “account” under a false name solely for purposes of disseminating false and libelous information in order to hurt a business. Recently, however, there has been a flurry of cases decided in numerous states which allow businesses or individuals damaged by false and libelous reviews to obtain the actual identity of the anonymous poster from companies such as Google, Yelp, and Yahoo for the sole purpose of suing that individual for damages. In this regard, when one opens an account on one of these websites solely for the purposes of posting “anonymous” false and libelous reviews, it is possible for Google, Yelp, and Yahoo to trace the true identities of these individuals through their “electronic fingerprints” which include the internet provider addresses and device identification. Once these identities are obtained, lawyers are bringing suit against these individuals for purposes of recovering damages on behalf of their client resulting from these false postings.
Accordingly, while internet review processes are often helpful for purposes of advising a business what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong, one must refrain from posting false information and false reviews about a business which, in turn, could cause monetary damage. As indicated above, even if one attempts to set forth anonymous false postings, the law now favors the release of the true identity of these otherwise anonymous individuals for the purpose of holding them accountable for their actions.
Should you have any questions concerning the above article or any other areas of the law, please do not hesitate to contact our office for a consultation.