We often receive complaints from clients about negative Internet chat room comments that are false or misleading being posted by disgruntled consumers or ex-employees.
The First Amendment allows people to discuss public issues or “matters of public concern.” Stating an opinion, however biased or absurd it may be, is generally protected as freedom of speech. Efforts to regulate the content of chat rooms over the Internet have repeatedly gone down in flames.
Factual lies are another matter. Unfortunately, even unflattering lies about a company are difficult to litigate, unless they are having an impact on a stock price, a product's sales, or an actual person, such as an executive, who is being personally attacked with untruths in the posting.
PROFESSIONAL RESPONSE It is possible to throw money at this problem and have some success by filing what is sometimes referred to as a “cybersmear” lawsuit. That way we can serve blanket “John Doe” subpoenas on chat room providers in an attempt to learn the identity of anonymous posters. We then may be able to obtain the writer's Internet protocol address, which can be used to locate the poster's Internet service provider (ISP), issue a subpoena to the ISP, and obtain the person's name and contact information. But this can be an expensive road to go down, and the larger ISPs will fight to keep such information private.
Our preferred method of handling this problem is as follows:
- Set up a schedule where targeted Internet chat rooms are reviewed via search engine for postings of the company's name, and see what is being posted.
- Appoint someone as “vice president of quality control” to respond to negative chat room postings. For example: Dear “AnnoyedinAllentown”: I am the VP of Quality Control at XYZ Contractor and just read your comment. I can't imagine how this problem occurred because we are dedicated to 100% customer satisfaction. Taking on good faith that what you say is true, I invite you to contact me directly to see what we can do to resolve your concerns. Please e-mail me at ...
This sets down on record that the company cares about such complaints, and shows others in the chat room that it is responding in a professional manner to resolve the issues. Create a dedicated e-mail address for just this purpose, and change it as needed should junk mail accumulate in the account.
—D.S. Berenson is the Washington, D.C., managing partner of Johanson Berenson LLP (www.homeimprovementlaw.com), a national law firm specializing in the representation of contractors and the home improvement industry. Reach him at email@example.com.
This article is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.