Ask the consultant: How can a small company clear derogatory content on the web?

  • Updated: August 12, 2012 - 12:11 PM

question

How can a company have defamatory content removed from the Internet? Both Google and YouTube have stated that they do not control the content of postings. We are a small start-up and do not have funds to pursue legal actions. What can I do?

JULIE MADISON

DOMATA GLUTEN FREE

JULIE@DOMATAFLOUR.COM

answer

The Internet makes it possible for businesses, even small ones, to reach customers and suppliers, and to engage in transactions globally. When disputes arise, sometimes the aggrieved party will post false and defamatory statements online that are very damaging to a business' reputation. It can be difficult to bring a defamation lawsuit against a defendant in a different state or country, and it can be very costly to recover against a party who may be unable to pay.

The alternative is to try to remove the defamatory material from the website hosting it, or to hold the website liable for continuing to host the material. This is very difficult as well. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides Web hosts with very broad immunity from liability for defamatory material posted by the users of a website.

Occasionally, the disgruntled party will set up a "gripe site" to attract more complaints or to spread false information. The gripe site may show up in search-engine results along with the authentic website of the company being defamed. Often the gripe site uses the trademarks of the defamed company in the domain name for the gripe site. If so, you might be able to convince the Web host that the site violates the Federal Trademark Dilution Act, or the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act. If so, by hosting the site, the Web host may have contributory liability. If a Web host is sufficiently concerned about potential liability, it may take down the defamatory site.

Finally, a non-legal approach is to hire a firm specializing in online reputation management. These companies use various strategies to ensure that authentic and positive links to the defamed company appear in the first few pages of any search results; links to the defamatory material are relegated to the bottom of the search results. The defamatory material is not removed from the Internet, but far fewer people will ever find it.

  • Richard G. Kunkel is an associate professor in the Department of Ethics and Business Law at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.

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