By Aaron Minc on September 1, 2016
Being a business owner in today’s digital age can be frustrating. You strive to provide your customers with the best service and take their feedback very seriously. What happens when someone leaves a review on your site that is anonymous? You may feel very frustrated because you are not able to directly address that person’s concerns. Additionally, you may be angry because a nameless person could post a fake or defamatory review which could injure your name and reputation. If you are wondering if people are allowed to leave anonymous reviews on your site, you are not alone.
Many online review sites encourage users to post reviews and comments about a particular business or service. Some of these sites will allow users to post their reviews anonymously. This can be troubling for a business because there is almost no way for the business to verify that this is an actual person or customer of the business. Unfortunately, it is fairly easy for people or for spammers to create multiple fake accounts and post a review on a business’s site. Previously, there was not much that a business owner could do except maybe comment on the review and encourage readers to not believe the comments. However, people have begun questioning if posting fake reviews anonymously was legal, and if a business or person who had a negative comment posted about them could have the comment removed or find the person’s identity to sue them for defamation.
One of the court cases that has come to national attention in the past few months and years is the case of Thomson v. Jane Doe, which may point to the future legality of anonymous posting.
In the case of Thomson v. Jane Doe, Deborah Thomson a Florida family law attorney had a negative review posted about her on the popular website Avvo. Ms. Thomson was concerned that the post was not from a legitimate source, and asked Avvo for the identity of the poster. Avvo refused to release the name of the anonymous user so that Ms. Thomson could file a defamation suit, which prompted Ms. Thomson to file a motion to compel Avvo to comply with her request. The Washington State Court of Appeals denied her request stating that she had not met all of the requirements to bring a defamation case.
In their ruling, the court noted that the First Amendment protects the right of people to speak anonymously. The court also stated that while people are free to post anonymously online, the First Amendment does not protect defamatory statements.
While, Ms. Thomson may have lost because she did not demonstrate that she had been defamed, the Washington State Court of Appeals did note some other cases that had laid out procedures to identify an anonymous poster.
One of the problems that the Internet and the courts in the United States is facing is that there is no singular law. As you may be aware, each state has its own laws in addition to the laws set by the federal government. However, in the case of Dendrite Int’l, Inc. v. Doe No. 3 the New Jersey intermediate appellate court set out a four-step process for determining whether to compel disclosure of the speaker’s identity:
While this may reflect the current state of the law in New Jersey, it is not necessarily the law across the United States. However, this case gives a certain framework that an attorney may be able to use if an anonymous user has defamed you.
If you are seeking options to minimize the damage that can potentially be caused by anonymous false and defamatory posts, the attorneys of Meyers Roman Friedberg & Lewis LPA may be able to work with you. Contact us to schedule a free and confidential consultation where you can explore your legal options. Aaron Michael Minc, an attorney with Meyers Roman Friedberg & Lewis LPA, focuses his practice on Internet law related issues. Aaron can be reached at (216) 831-0042 or firstname.lastname@example.org.