(MCT) — Jicheng "Kevin" Liu's alleged victims have spent countless frustrating hours trying to remove the malicious reviews of their businesses and personal conduct from the Internet.
Even though the authors of potentially libelous reviews on consumer websites can be held responsible in court, the sites themselves are protected against defamation lawsuits under federal law, experts say.
Sites such as Scambook.com, RipoffReport.com and Yelp enjoy this immunity under the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which doesn't hold them accountable for publishing content provided by computer users, who often post their comments anonymously.
While operators of these sites may make minor edits to the reviews, correcting misspellings and grammatical errors, they don't have to fact-check the content of the postings, said Evan Brown, a Chicago technology lawyer who has represented individuals victimized online.
"For those irrational people who just love picking fights on the Web and savor the idea of getting a nasty letter from somebody's lawyer … there will never be much that you can do with those kinds of people, practically, short of filing legal action against them," Brown said.
Experts say protecting websites from lawsuits over content is crucial to the continuing success of the Internet.
"It would cause tremendous harm to the Internet economy if companies have had to devote resources to worrying about taking down (defamatory) content," said Jeff Hermes, director of the digital media law project at Harvard University. "Essentially, websites and Internet service providers would be responsible for all of the content posted by its users."
Hermes said that would mean social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter or Yelp would have to pay staff to review millions of posts to determine if any were defamatory and opened them to endless lawsuits.
That leaves victims such as Renee Molda, who says her eBay business was destroyed by Liu's online attacks, to try to go after the authors themselves. Unmasking them can be pricey and time-consuming.
Brown said a victim would need to fight to subpoena the website for the writer's Internet Protocol address and Internet provider for any hope of finding the writer's identity. Brown urges his clients to be aware of what's being said about their business online and evaluate whether it's meaningful to address their critics.
Hermes said another potential route for consumers is to pay attention to the terms of service that are posted on a particular review site. Many have policies against threatening or defamatory content and might be willing to red-flag an objectionable post if alerted.
"Most of these sites, if you go to them and say, 'I'm going to sue you over this post,' they'll tell you to go pound sand because they are protected," Hermes said. But if you point out violations to their own terms of service, he said, "they might be more willing to work with you."