Google Bomb: Internet lawyer John Dozier on Defamation Online

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googlebombThere’s a fine line between the First Amendment right to free speech and defamation, and this has become an increasingly larger problem online. What do you do if you’ve been careful with your reputation personally and professionally, but someone with a vendetta decides to attack you?

Internet lawyer John Dozier is one of the country’s leading experts on the issue of online defamation, and is the author of Google Bomb: The Untold Story of the $11.3M Verdict That Changed the Way We Use the Internet. The book details the Sue Scheff’s landmark internet defamation case that reminded the world that real people are the target of online harassment, cyberbulling, privacy invasion, and Google bombs. A “Google bomb” is an attempt to manipulate the Google rankings related to a particular search term to the detriment of a person or organization.

Part of the problem with online defamation is that our laws judges simply haven’t kept up with technology. Anyone and everyone can write anything on the internet, and often getting to the bottom of it and taking appropriate action is difficult. Dozier instructs readers on how to protect their reputations by carefully monitoring what is said about them online and signing up for various services online to to essentially take their own name (and therefore prevent someone from maliciously signing up with your name in an attempt to impersonate you).

This is John Dozier on a morning news program, talking about the risks and his book Google Bomb.

9 thoughts on “Google Bomb: Internet lawyer John Dozier on Defamation Online

  1. Most of the time I see defamation cases, they are filed by the powerful to silence the weak. Threats of defamation lawsuits have been used by plenty of shady operators to silence criticism, and you have written about this phenomenon before.

    Considering that the internet makes anonymity so prevalent that it becomes very hard to even identify critics, it is becoming ever more difficult and costly to counter defamation. I think it is time we dropped defamation and false lights as torts … that could result in people giving less credence to published criticism, which would be a good thing. As it stands, there is a tendency to believe that something written online is true because if it weren’t, the person it is written about.

  2. I also don’t understand the idea that defamation laws need to be adjusted for the internet. If one is happy with defamation law as it is, there is little to quibble with how it is applied online, except for for the question of how the almost infinite capacity of the internet to archive information should affect statues of limitation for defamation (ie, if something is posted on a blog in 2007 but is easily found on search engines in 2010, should it be un-actionable in a state with a two-year statute of limitations?).

  3. Tracy Coenen

    I think the problem is less about the laws themselves, and more about the fact that judges simply don’t know enough about the internet to apply them properly. The laws themselves may be fine, but the judges need to be educated about the internet and how it works so they can make proper rulings in these cases. I don’t want a bunch of new laws, but I’d like to see something done to address how these laws are applied to online material so there can be some uniformity and fairness in the application of the laws.

  4. @Michael Goode-

    Silencing critics is one thing, but it’s like you said (most of the time). So we should allow defamation when it happens to someone that did not deserve it. And again like you said, the anonymity of the internet makes it very easy for anyone to drag anyone else’s name through the mud. 1st amendment is our priveledge, but we must also protect those that are wrongfully accused by those that abuse the freedom to write publicly. Hosting companies, search engines, online publications, and webmasters should be held accountable for their actions when they are designed to tarnish a citizens reputation. As you may have noticed when you wrote a comment to this page, they have a TOS/disclaimer clause to which we’re expected to adhere.

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  5. In many cases horrible problems have been avoided for the community as a result of anonymous blogging. This includes whistle blowing for white-collar criminals, community awareness when sexual predators move into the neighborhood, and many other alerts that are of great community benefit.

    Benefits notwithstanding, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs and anonymous free speech on the Internet is one such omelette. There is no such thing as free speech; there is always a cost. Sometimes that cost is acceptable, moreover desirable, particularly in the case of positive community awareness. However, often their many false and deceptive rumors, and libelous attacks are motivated only by hatred and vindictive antisocial promptings. More often than not, these serial cyber defamers have some type of antisocial personality disorder. They have nothing better to do than hurt other people; in fact they are actually fueled by other people’s pain. Normal people like 97% of the readers of my comment cannot begin to relate to how these people think. Stop for a moment and imagine not having a conscience….. it is simply impossible.

    A concerted, focused and malicious Internet smear campaign can be as devastating for a person that relies on his or her reputation for employment as a fire can be for a farmer who loses his fields, barns, and livestock.

    Respectfully submitted by Michael Roberts.
    Internet Libel Victim’s Advocate.
    http://www.Rexxfield.com

  6. Tracy Coenen

    Yes, there is certainly a balancing act that must occur. We need to have free speech, yet that shouldn’t extend to people spreading malicious lies, impersonating others on the internet, and otherwise causing massive trouble. Unfortunately, the victims of these types of actions have a difficult time getting the problems resolved in a fair fashion.

    And you’re right Michael Roberts – The people who do this think in a different way than the rest of us. Many times they have “nothing to lose” so the threat of legal action means nothing to them. They have pathetic lives that will really be no worse off if someone attempts to stop them from victimizing others.

    I am very much a free speech advocate, especially as it relates to criticizing companies. I run http://www.pinktruth.com which is very critical of Mary Kay Cosmetics, and I believe we should have a right to voice our opinions and analysis of companies such as this. But we should not be permitted to lie about them, and I take pains to make sure that we’re citing true facts about the company. (I continue to invite people to correct any of the facts that I’ve posted by directing me to proof of something other than what I’ve posted.) But there is a line that should not be crossed, and I am very mindful of that.

  7. I should point out that it is perfectly possible to destroy someone’s reputation and hurt their feelings without libeling them. (We all of course remember the Myspace boyfriend hoax that led to a teen girl’s suicide: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,312018,00.html). Or, a savvy operator can libel all he wants (and pretend he is many different people) as long as he is smart enough to do it while using very simple software to hide his IP address.

    Libel law protects a very few specific things and it does that in a very arbitrary fashion that favors the rich (due to the cost of lawsuits). It also has a very chilling effect on free speech. Consider the case of Merck recently sueing a scientist for saying their drug was dangerous. A few hundred people with hurt feelings and tarnished business reputations hardly seem like a large cost when compared to the harm to innovation and scientific discourse that this one lawsuit could cause (http://blogs.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2009/12/mri-drug-debate.html).

  8. TRUO

    “Internet smear campaign can be as devastating for a person that relies on his or her reputation for employment as a fire can be for a farmer who loses his fields, barns, and livestock.”

    Yes but a farmer can replace those things. If your repuation is damaged it may not be possible to undo.

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