Wed, 19 Jan 2022

False Online Consumer Reports and Web Liability

25 Nov 2021, 22:24 GMT+10

Will Suspect Web Complaints No Longer Be Free from Accountability?

The fall 2021 announcement by Mark Zuckerberg that media giant Facebook was changing its brand name to Meta was met with much speculation as to the motives behind the move. Marketwatch's article summarized that 'Facebook becomes Meta in rebranding seen as 'an attempt at distraction'' from charges recently leveled by a whistleblower over its internal practices, not to mention ongoing complaints the platform selectively censors alternative voices. But the criticism is just the latest salvo in concerns raised about an undue power of web platforms to promote or restrict information online.

Unverified Reports

Proper reputation management by smaller scale online businesses has been made more complicated in recent years by the influence of consumer sites that issue 'scam reports' on various firms, whose claims may convey accurate reviews, or misinformation. The ability of the business to rebut false or misleading complaints is often very limited, due to the anonymous nature of the reports, or the free speech status of the sites that publish them, which tends to protect them from liability for libel or defamation charges. This can effectively make the claims unanswerable, and can lead to hearsay or nameless accusations being given de-facto unbalanced credence in the marketplace.

As a result, attempts to protect or shore up the reputations of individuals, companies, or entire industries, to combat dubious reports have become more tactically inventive with the times. Marketwatch has posted on how general progress made by bigger companies has served to overcome this problem. The restructuring of DraftKings in recent years into a public company, in one example, may have been performed to pre-emptively establish legality for its operations, to head off criticism of the emerging legitimacy of entertainment firms that promote sports predictions. This fortification of reputation may be available for cash-rich businesses, but what of long-standing companies in the same field who have received disputed attacks, yet are not as capitalized?

Legal Limbo

Buzzfeed News' report on 'The Supreme Court Is Split on Online Reputation and Harm' examined the litigation in the Spokeo vs. Robins case over the accountability of search engine companies with regard to disputed information. The Court ultimately decided the plaintiffs had claimed potential, but not established actual harm, thus lacked standing to sue. But this sidestepped the issue as to whether the search engine would have liability, if standing was upheld.

The Georgetown Law Technology Review analysis 'Spokeo v. Robins: A Dangerous Case for Privacy Plaintiffs' commented that 'the Court should have affirmed the Ninth Circuit's finding of injury-in-fact, as the harm was both particularized and concrete. By remanding, the Court weakened the ability of individuals to protect their right to privacy created by Congress in the FCRA.' So whether the relief sought is over privacy or defamation, the question remains, do web companies have liability for harmful information they publish?

Most persons and firms may not be not in possession of billions of dollars, lawyers or easier media access to engage in lengthy litigation battles over this, until the legal issues receive more clarity. The immediate online reputation management remedy for them (for now) remains providing long term good service, and employing proper SEO practices (not gaming the search engines) to positively document their authority or track record in the market.

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