Internet Lawsuits: Tilting at Windmills

Court throws out another defamation lawsuit against Google
More of the same: The courts throw out yet another defamation lawsuit against Google.
To the casual observer, it seems like American society gets more litigious with every passing year … with legal judgments handed down in cases that might have seemed totally frivolous in earlier decades.

But one area where the courts don’t appear to be favoring plaintiffs at all is in the realm of Internet defamation lawsuits. No matter how many times someone brings a legal action – and with all sorts of corroborating evidence in hand — the cases are thrown out of court.

The most recent example of this comes from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has just ruled in favor of Google in a lawsuit involving a family-owned roofing and construction business. The owners of the business had sued Google for defamation, citing an anonymous post that appeared on Google Places.

The anonymous poster claimed that “this company says it will fix my roof, but all I get are excuses.” According to the suit, this post has hurt business prospects, but it’s been impossible for the company to attempt to resolve the customer’s problem due to the anonymous nature of the post – or even to confirm that it represents an actual customer’s experience.

And I don’t doubt at all that business has suffered for this company as a result of the negative review. Results from a new survey conducted by Cone Communications reveals that ~80% of consumers have changed their minds about purchasing a product or service based solely on negative information they encountered online. That percentage is up from ~67% in 2010.

Clearly, online information has more power than ever to “make or break” a product or service these days.

But the appellate court sided with the district court that had ruled earlier that Google was immune from liability. The court wrote: “The district court properly dismissed plaintiffs’ action … because plaintiffs seek to impose liability on Google for content created by a third party.”

As in all the other cases it has successfully checkmated, Google moved to have the case dismissed on the grounds that the federal Communications Decency Act immunizes web sites for libel claims that stem from users’ comments.

I’ve blogged before about courts and the Internet, and it’s always the same: Trying to sue for “transgressions” carried out on the Internet is like banging your head against a wall.

The wall doesn’t budge, and all you end up with is a big headache.

So it bears repeating: If you’re thinking about bringing a legal action against someone because of an online issue, do yourself a favor. Don’t bother.

The Huge Challenge of Litigating Content Posted Online

Barbra Streisand House -- the "Streisand Effect"
The "Streisand Effect": Barbra Streisand's Malibu compound.
The “brave new world” of the Internet and social media is having interesting side effects. One of these is the heartburn that some companies are feeling as unflattering portraits of their inside operations are painted, or other types of gossip are published for all the world to see.

In a recent example of this, we’ve had a chance to see how it’s playing out with Mechanical Dynamics & Analysis, an engineering services firm that repairs turbine generators. In court papers filed in U.S. District Court in St. Louis a few weeks back, it alleges that the Sound Off blog defamed current and former officers of the company. It also alleges that the blog revealed confidential company information.

The Sound Off blog doesn’t shy away from its mission. At the top of its masthead, it trumpets: “What we cannot say at the office, we can say here.” The postings in question pinpoint certain MD&A executives and reveal salary levels (that may or may not be accurate).

Another blog post reports that a former executive of the firm made a cool $4 million from the sale of the company.

Other posts just sound snippy. For example, there’s one that opines that one of the company’s officers “has two faces” – one “charming and cordial” … the other that of “a low-life crooked bastard.”

MD&A is asking the court to order Google to disclose the identity of the author(s) of the posts, after having unsuccessfully requested that Google remove the blog.

What are the chances of success of this legal action? Probably not very good.

For one thing, the U.S. District Court may lack jurisdiction because defamation cases can only be brought in federal court when the plaintiffs and defendants live in different states. As this point, there’s no way of knowing where the people who authored the anonymous blog posts reside … so it’s impossible to determine whether the suit should be brought at the federal or state level.

Also, the dates on the blog posts are all in the year 2006, which means that the statute of limitations in Missouri would come into play. But is it possible that the posts were backdated? That might be the case, because the creator of the blog has supposedly been on Blogger, the Google-owned blogging service platform, just since 2008.

The bottom line on all this: It’s quite murky.

And then there’s the issue of confidential data. The company alleges that the blog posts contain confidential information about its executives. But that information is then repeated in the court papers filed in the case. That makes it part of the public record – hence blunting the charge that publishing this confidential information was so horrible or damaging in the first place.

I have a feeling that this lawsuit isn’t going to get very far. That’s kind of a shame, really, because it’s pretty stinky when supposed corporate “dirty laundry” is aired in this fashion. Often, the allegations are hyped way beyond the reality of the situation. In almost every instance, there are two sides to the story – one of which gets short shrift (or no shift at all) in the online postings.

Alas, companies had better get used to the “transparent everything world” in which we live today. And it’s good to heed the warning of TechDirt’s technology blogger Mike Masnick not to become a victim of the “Streisand Effect.”

What’s that? It stems from a multi-million dollar lawsuit brought by Barbra Streisand to remove a photo of her house from the Internet. Not only did her suit fail … it brought far more attention to the photo than if she had ignored the whole thing in the first place.