As an online reputation management consultant, I often find myself on both sides of the fence. Sure, I help a lot of companies and individuals with their reputation needs, but I also study and comment on the effectiveness of the different methods and tactics open to a brand’s detractors.
A new court ruling provides the perfect platform for discussing both sides of the fence.
As SMH reports, a US judge has ruled that Google must hand over the identity of an anonymous Blogger.com author that posted defamatory remarks about glamor model Liskula Cohen. In a series of attacks, the blogger behind “Skanks in NYC” made many disparaging remarks about Cohen, including:
“How old is this skank? 40 something? She’s a psychotic, lying, whoring, still going to clubs at her age, skank.”
The blogger’s attorney tried to claim that these remarks were not defamatory and merely one person’s opinion or “trash talk” as he called it. The judge didn’t buy it.
“The thrust of the blog is that the petitioner is a sexually promiscuous woman,” Judge Madden wrote in her judgment, noting that the comments were run alongside photos of Cohen in suggestive poses.
Now Google has to hand over the identity of the blogger so that Cohen can identify and sue that person for defamation. Whether she wins that or not, that’s for another judge to decide.
So, what are the lessons here?
First, for defamer. While defamatory laws (especially in the US) provide some means of protection for opinion, it often boils down to whether or not it’s portrayed as fact and if the general public will assume its a fact. If you go on the attack, you have to be sure the claims you are making are legitimate. You can’t just say “in my opinion” then reel off a laundry list of damaging statements.
Also, anonymity is coming to an end on the web. In my opinion, this is a good thing. I’ve seen too many companies have their reputation burned by an anonymous blogger–one that is just as likely to be a competitor fabricating lies, as a real customer. So, if you have plans to attack anyone’s reputation, don’t assume that you can do so in the safety of anonymity.
For the recipient. This could set an important precedent for using the legal system to weed out defamatory detractors. While this ruling is against Google, it is likely to become an important asset when asking any judge to force a web business to hand over the personal details of an anonymous detractor. If the most powerful internet company in the world can be forced to hand over the identity of a detractor, it stands to reason that any company can.
There are few times that I ever advise a client to take legal action, but blatant defamatory comments are certainly one of them. With this ruling–and if other judges follow suit–it will make it easier for businesses battling reputation issues. It’s one thing to stand-up and face legitimate criticisms of your business, but at least now there’s an option for exposing those that have less than genuine intentions.
The bottom line? I’ve spent the last half a decade touting the virtues of being Radically Transparent. It now looks like that transparency is going to be felt on both sides of the fence.