• The Right to Gripe Online
  • January 22, 2004 | Author: Theodore F. Claypoole
  • Law Firm: Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice - Charlotte Office
  • Since the early days of the Internet's wide public acceptance commentators have speculated that new Internet publishing models may change the law of defamation. Giving consumers the ability to complain to a mass audience was acknowledged as both liberating and dangerous. Most recently, the federal courts in Wisconsin have spoken on this subject and ruled in favor of free speech and the consumer's right to complain in public.

    U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb of Wisconsin granted a motion to dismiss a defamation lawsuit filed by a kitchenware maker and based on consumer complaints on a web site created specifically to publicize those complaints. The site, BadBusinessBureau.com, features thousands of negative reviews of consumers claiming to have been ripped off by retail companies.

    BadBusinessBureau.com posts both consumer complaints and will post rebuttals by the accused company. News.com reports that BadBusinessBureau.com is run by self-proclaimed consumer advocate Ed Magedson who will post a company rebuttal for free, but charges a twenty-five dollar fee for a company to post more than four rebuttals.

    The Plaintiff in the case is a cookware maker named Hy Cite, whose lawyer is still hoping to secure an injunction against BadBusinessBureau.com despite Judge Crabb's dismissal.

    In the past decade, companies have sued Internet forum providers from CompuServe to Prodigy to Yahoo! to try to enjoin the publications of company secrets, criticism or allegedly false statements. Often, while finding that the writer of the statement is responsible for its effects, courts have not tended to punish the manager of the Internet forum containing the publication. In real world terms, the Internet service providers were treated like a book seller, who is generally not liable for defamation in the books he sells, rather than a book publisher, who is more likely to be enjoined by a court for defamation in the book he publishes.