Internet Attorney on Online Defamation

Nearly every ecommerce merchant has experienced disgruntled customers or angry competitors who post dishonest comments about his or her business. This could be in so-called complaint sites, forums, blogs or other online venues. Internet attorney John Dozier of the law firm Dozier Internet Law says there are steps merchants can take to limit the damage from these attacks. He recently wrote a book called Google Bomb that has to do with various threats and untruths that can happen to ecommerce merchants, among other Internet users, and he joined us recently to talk about it.

PeC: Tell us about your new book.

John Dozier: “The publisher is HCI Books. A lot of people recognize them for their “Chicken Soup for the Soul” line of books. They approached me about putting together a book that would address how to protect yourself online in this new world. It not only deals with protecting families and individuals, but a big part of what I wrote about was how to protect your business and your business asset, your reputation, your intellectual property, all that kind of stuff.

“It keys off the story of a lady who was attacked. Her business basically was decimated by a group of scofflaws and she ended up with a judgment of $11.3 million. It happened a couple of years ago and it was the largest defamation judgment at the time. She tells the story, and I key in and give a broader perspective on the landscape of what’s happening–how your business can be attacked, is being attacked, and steps you can take to prevent it.

“There’s a lot of this going on where [merchants] don’t realize that they are actually a victim. Some of these review sites are the classic example. Very few of them are legitimate. They’re almost all affiliate marketers that are, in one way or another, disparaging the product that they’re not selling. It’s a classic example of trademark infringement. It’s illegal and it’s false advertising.

“But, fortunately laws are changing, regulations are evolving. The FTC just came out with a new regulation. They’ve put a clamp on these review sites and a lot of advertisers who make extravagant claims that are seen as objective evaluation but are actually sales pitches. ”

PeC: This is a hypothetical question. Say I’m an ecommerce merchant and I sell a product to customers and the product is properly represented on my site. I ship it as intended. It correctly gets to the customer. The customer opens the product, uses it, decides he doesn’t want it anymore, and asks me to refund the money. I can’t refund the money because he’s used the product. He gets angry at me. He goes to a review site and says, “Don’t buy from this merchant because he’s a bad guy.” What should I do?

Dozier: “That’s a classic. I can tell you what not to do, which is to go and jump on that site and respond. If you do that, it’s going to optimize the results higher and higher so that when your company is searched, this is going to become a more prominent result.

“You might, or might not, want to go to the party and see if you can somehow satisfy them and they would perhaps pull down their negative review, but these types of things come from people who have nothing to lose and they’re very difficult to deal with.

“Unfortunately, it’s a continuing theme throughout the book. We have a federal law in place that gives these websites immunity so that they can publish all kinds of trash without having the responsibility that a publisher or a newspaper would have. It’s such egregious, overreaching law that is being whittled away by the courts. Bottom line is it’s very, very difficult to address those types of situations and they can be devastating.”

PeC: What if a competitor gives me a bad review or one star on Amazon?

Dozier: “That’s a whole different ball game because you get away from free speech and getting more towards what we call unfair competition, false advertising, and pure defamation product disparagement. But really, the only difference at law is a very practical one, which is that the odds are your competitor has an income stream and because of that they have something to lose. So, when you send out that letter (if you can figure out that they’re the one or you think they are), the likelihood of there being a response is much greater. The likelihood of them hiring a lawyer is much better and that means the likelihood of getting this problem resolved is much greater.”

PeC: So, how do I prove that it’s my competitor writing unfair reviews?

Dozier: “First of all, you don’t have to know it. All you have to do is suspect it and a skilled attorney can write a letter to someone who he believes they might have done something and say, ‘We don’t know if you’re the ones that are doing this, but if you are, be aware we are thinking about filing a lawsuit, filing subpoenas, getting an IP address, going to the ISP that owns that IP address, finding out who was using it at the time. If it tracks back to your business, you’re going to have a huge, expensive problem. Alternatively, you can take this letter to your lawyer and have him contact me so that we can try to work through this and move forward.’

“Now, how do you find out who it is? Sometimes you can look at the signature on the avatar. Or you can take snippets of words they’ve used and search them on Google and see if they come up as unique word combinations and see whoever used them in the past. A lot of times people tend to use the same types of phrases over and over again. Or a former employee tells on them, or something like that. But, if you suspect it but you don’t know it, there are ways to try and deal with it without a lawsuit. If you decide you have to deal with it, then you file a lawsuit and there are methods by which you can determine all the other parties who are involved. I discuss in Google Bomb the top 10 techniques you can take businesswise to build up a moat around your castle.”

PeC: What are some things a merchant can do to protect his or her business from false attacks?

Dozier: “Monitoring is number one. There’s a chapter in the book on setting up alert systems [such as] Google Alerts. The moment your product or service or key personnel or business is mentioned on the web, you get an email alerting you to what is being said with a link. There are much more advanced monitoring systems out there, but not for the small business. You follow the directions I lay out you’ll be fine in terms of your alerts. Understanding, getting on top of it very quickly is key.

“Number two, there’s an entire chapter on the top 10 steps you need to take to build up your reputation because when someone attacks you, it’s really about whose website or blog is going to come in front of the other. Who has more strength? Who has in Google’s eyes a greater reputation? There are many things you can do to build up your reputation online, for instance, getting involved in social networks, such as LinkedIn and Twitter, Facebook, Friendster, MySpace. And, there are other companies now that provide very narrowly focused reputation management profiles like Naymz and others.

“The third thing that I would recommend is that you find someone who can spend maybe an hour a night per about a week setting this up. As you build out all these sites, you start controlling the top two or three pages of Google when someone searches for your product or service and now you’re a much less likely target because if people want to attack. [Detractors] have a tendency to migrate to easy targets and what you’re saying to the marketplace out there is ‘We’re not an easy target.’ Your risk factor balancing the potential where word of disparaging a reputation doesn’t justify you coming at us, you go to somebody else.”

PeC: Anything else on your mind for our readers?

Dozier: “All I’d say is it’s probably worthwhile to go on Amazon and get a copy of Google Bomb if you’re any type of ecommerce business. It’s really focused on small businesses, but it also talks about how to protect your family and your children’s reputation and steps you can be taking today so that five or six or seven years from now they are less likely to be a target. And, you can keep up with all the latest developments by following dozierlaw on Twitter.”

PEC Staff
PEC Staff
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