Published On: Sun, Sep 23rd, 2018

Defamers Target Top Law Firm, Showing Just How Much the Internet is Broken

Between fake news websites and few consequences, journalism is under attack by reputation strategists.

photo/ Gordon Johnson

It is exceedingly easy to publish and spread information (or misinformation) online. But what happens when attacks go too far? Where does free speech end, and the usual legal protections against libel begin? What legal recourse do companies and businesses have in protecting their reputations and clients?

There are not easy questions to answer. Few laws define and defend against libel, especially online. But corporate entities, limited liability corporations, and other businesses supposedly have the same rights and protections against libel as individuals under the law.  In many cases, these companies are at a disadvantage in reacting to smear tactics. The internet moves too fast, and courts too slow. Sometimes, all they can do is counter the misinformation with accurate information and allow consumers to judge for themselves in the free marketplace of ideas. This is a great ideal strategy, but seldom suffices in the short-term.

How Companies Defend Against Attacks in the Short-term

In an ideal world, a company is able to defend itself against libelous claims by presenting the truth. However, the internet provides an environment in which outrageous claims are often given equal footing via social media. In fact, the more outrageous the claim, the more quickly a social media “smear” campaign may spread. How can a company protect itself in the short term?

One tactic is to petition Google, the internet’s de facto central authority to withhold damaging search listings. Some would argue google has effectively indexed most of the web’s content. Similar to the production code of classical Hollywood cinema, it is usually preferable to allow industries to self-regulate before the government becomes involved in policing.

Take, as one recent example, the offices of Aaron Kelly and Daniel Warner, which came under fire for using these petitions to help protect their own clients against defamatory claims. Ironically, they faced harsher consequences from the Arizona State Bar Association than their libelous detractors would have faced in traditional court, had the libelous claims been printed, rather than disseminated online. Clearly, the internet is broken, especially in how it deals with claims of libel.  

Determining Better Procedures for Internet Libel Cases

A company does have the right to protect itself against libel, but it is clear that better laws and procedures need to be in place online. Put another way, a company has the right to protect its own online reputation and livelihood, but not by any means necessary.

In the online arena, hopefully courts and precedents will determine new procedures moving forward. Finding ways to suppress the websites and speech of opponents that hold detracting views is an abuse of our legal system, but at the same time, new laws must prioritize our rights to pursue happiness  and protect our own livelihoods from those who wish us harm.

Guest Author: Colin Steinway

On the DISPATCH: Headlines  Local  Opinion

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