In the Internet age, cyber libel is the new big treat and companies can have their reputations ruin in the blink of an eye. Cayman’s Business & Professional Women’s Club held a lunch and lecture with a barrister who specialises in cyber libel, defamation and reputational management to discuss the growing threat.
There’s an ever-increasing trend for business owners to rely heavily on the Internet to market their company, but Canadian barrister David Potts knows there’s another side of the story.
Potts, who was the speaker at a lunch and lecture presented by Cayman’s Business & Professional Women’s Club at Hollywood Theaters on Friday 20 April, has built a practice devoted to defamation, reputational management and Internet libel.
“Many businesses use the Internet for a great deal of marketing and advertising, but it can boomerang in ways that are very damaging,” he said.
He noted that while he was visiting Cayman, he ate at a restaurant that encouraged diners to post comments about their experience on the TripAdvisor website. He said this could be a dangerous practice because it was asking people to comment and they wouldn’t necessarily write good things.
Because of the immediacy and ubiquity of the Internet, Potts said it could ruin a businesses reputation very quickly.
“But you can fight back,” he said.
However, he said fighting cyber libel was different than fighting the typical kinds of libel of the past.
“The old rules often don’t apply and are often counterproductive,” he said, noting that traditional libel tends to be very local in nature while cyber libel is international in scope because of the long reach of the Internet.
Types of attacks
There are generally four types of libelous Internet attacks on businesses, Potts said. One type is often found on industry-specific bulletin boards and Internet chat rooms, where starting rumours could influence pricing. Often, these attacks are designed to influence stock prices, he said.
Another common type of Internet attack is against companies that offer goods and services and often involves what he called “suck sites” – Internet websites that state this or that company “sucks” for one reason or another.
A third type of common Internet attack involves the creation of a website calling for a boycott of a company, often because of policies it has that deal with social issues such as labour practices or the environment. These sites are often created by trade union members or activists.
One other common method of Internet attacks comes from employees of a company who do not think they are being treated fairly.
“These usually occur when a company is in a downturn and has to layoff people,” Potts said.
Although Internet attacks are just a form of defamation and not a new phenomenon, Potts said they do have peculiar features because of the technology used to disseminate the attacks.
Fighting cyber libel
Potts said one of the challenges in fighting cyber libel is that in many cases it is difficult to ascertain and/or locate the person or company responsible for the libelous content because people can hide behind anonymity. In addition, people can make libelous statements from remote locations or from countries with lenient libel laws.
Because of these challenges, Potts likens fighting cyber libel to guerilla warfare as opposed to traditional warfare. Instead of starting a legal action against the author/editor/publisher of a publication, as would traditionally be done in a libel matter, Potts said the cyber libel approach would have a wronged company suing the author, the Internet service provider and the Internet search engine.
“Think in terms of guerilla warfare,” he said. “Think in terms of an interdisciplinary approach.”
Before making any decisions about how to proceed in a libel action, Potts said it was important that a company know what outcome it desires.
“Often, it’s just to get [the libelous statement] down,” he said.
In addition, libel actions are usually reported in the media, which can draw unwanted attention to the libelous statement, creating further reputational damage, so it’s important a business assess the potential damage before proceeding.
“You don’t want a great operation and a dead patient,” Potts said. “That’s not something you want at the end of the day.”
Fighting cyber libel is what Potts call and “optical battle” and the typical cease and desist orders that lawyers often send often don’t work.
“You have to restrain your natural inclinations and ask yourself: Is [the libelous statement] going to migrate to another website? Is it going to migrate to an even more popular website?” he said. “You don’t want to turn a problem into a disaster, and I see it all the time.”
Potts said there was no hard and fast approach to fighting cyber libel and that each case had to be assessed separately, based on what he called reputational pressure points. If a libelous statement was unlikely to be believed by a business’s main clients, for example, the approach could be less drastic than if it threatened the business’s existence.
Potts warned, however, that Internet libel had a long life.
“The real frightening problem with the Internet is that sometimes what happened a few years ago will be accessed 10 years from now, so there’s no roomw to slip.”