Customer complaints used to be aired to customer service representatives in person or one-on-one over the telephone, in a letter, or more recently through e-mails. There was opportunity for dialogue. There was an opportunity for the business to let the customer know their concerns were being heard and an opportunity for the business to take action and actually do something about the problem. Today, however, there are internet websites that allow anyone to vent their displeasure in public. These cyber-bully pulpits can be both damaging and embarrassing, leaving businesses highly frustrated.
Some companies are fighting back in court. However, they are not finding the kind of success there that you might otherwise expect there. Efforts to hold Internet service providers accountable for the cyber rants and ravings of the websites they host have typically, and ironically, run into a brick wall under the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) which states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
In other words, these Internet service providers are merely intermediaries who are not responsible or liable for the content posted by their users. That interpretation of the CDA is supported by the legislative history of the Act which basically shows that Congress didn’t want to shoot the messenger by penalizing service providers who offer such forums for speech. It’s the price we pay for the First Amendment right to free speech.
Some businesses take a different legal approach. Instead of going after the Internet service provider, they aim their legal guns directly against the authors of the nasty (and perhaps untrue) commentary.
One such case that is currently unfolding and making headlines in legal circles involves a lawyer trash talking his former law firm. Seriously.
The law firm at the center of the controversy is Levinson Axelrod of Edison, NJ. The firm’s real website can be accessed through levinsonaxelrod.com and njlawyers.com; but, an enterprising ex-employee obtained the domain name of levinsonaxelrod.net and that website paints a less than flattering picture of the firm. I took a quick peek at it today and learned that the ex-employee has even started a corresponding FaceBook group to “complement” his website. (How’s that for a negative social networking twist?)
Anyhow, the law firm is not taking this lying down and has reportedly filed suit. Among the claims alleged are violations of the federal Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act and trademark infringement, in addition to unfair competition claims and breach of the duty of loyalty. The competition and loyalty claims are tied to the lawyer’s status as a former employee. You’re typical customer complaint scenario probably wouldn’t the employee angle to it. Nonetheless, the other aspects might provide some interesting cannon fodder – depending of course on how your customer styles their complaint site.
Defamation claims, the thing that typically comes to mind when trying to defend your reputation are difficult to win and the recent case of Intellect Art Multimedia Inc. v. Milewski explains why. But more on that tomorrow.