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Jan 29 2011

Court: Nasty Online Comments in RipOff Report Are Not Actionable

Everyone loves the internet.  The available information; the social networking; the ability to do things from your home computer that used to require you to actually get out of your house; the free expression.  But the “information superhighway” has a dark side and that is that anyone can post a negative opinion about you on a variety of sites and it can live on forever.

Case in point is what happened to matrimonial attorney Gary Field. After resolving a particularly nasty divorce, he found that someone had posted comments on a site called RipOff Report. Here is a sample of the comments:

Gary P. Field Fool Attorney who practices Fraud… Gary Field a/k/a “the Walking Fool” is the most worst attorney licensed to practice in the State of New York… ,Overall, he is dumb… ”

Field felt that this and other negative posts about him came from the ex-spouse of his client in that nasty divorce matter.  So he sued.  Well this week, Judge Thomas Whelan ruled that since these posts constituted “mere opinions” that they were not libelous or defamatory even if false.  While the court was accurate in its recitation of law and the difference between false opinions and false facts, I think the court was not mindful of the new media that is the internet and the permanency of these types of comments.  In analyzing the law, Judge Whelan stated:

The nature of the forum is equally important . If the language employed constitutes a general reflection on a person’s character or qualities, it is not a matter of such significance and importance as to amount to defamation.

The court found that the forum and subject matter were “not a matter of such significance and importance so as to amount to actionable defamation.” The court I think failed to understand how forum posts have a life of their own and can stay on the internet forever. Field represented himself  but perhaps instead he should have retained a lawyer savvy in social media who could have better explained that this site is not insignificant.  Due to the traffic on RipOff Report it comes up fairly high on Google searches.  So when new clients search for Mr. Field they are very likely to see this report within the first few Google responses. I would rather be defamed in the print edition of the NY Times than in the online edition of the OshKosh Wisconsin Herald (if there is such a thing).  The first is viewed once by a multitude of people who are likely to forget when they throw away the newspaper and never to be seen again. The other stays online forever and may come up under my name for years to come.

I just entered Mr. Field’s name in Google and the first six responses were pages from his website, but the seventh was the RipOff Report with a headline that reads: “GARY P. FIELD FOOL ATTORNEY WHO PRACTICES FRAUD!!!!!!!!!” This is devastating to new business for Field as new clients will scroll past his own website when seeking to find neutral and independent evaluations of him.  The court should have also been made aware that RipOff Report makes no attempt to verify anything about the posts and will not take the post down even if you prove its wrong or false.  Instead they will steer you to buy into their expensive mediation system where they will ask the poster to prove the truth of the allegations or the basis of the opinion to an arbitrator.  There is nothing insignificant about this website.   In fact, I am even nervous about writing this post for fear that they themselves may put something on ROR that will now come up when my name is Googled.  I believe had Judge Whelan been more familiar with ROR and its implications he might have at least allowed the case to move forward to the next phase.  Field also had no proof that his ex-adversary was responsible.  I believe had he made an motion pre-action to try and obtain such proof, he might have survived the dismissal motion. That way he would have gone into court showing that the post was not made by a disgruntled client, but was just a malicious post designed to harm his reputation.

You want to invest in a new growing business? : “Online Reputation Management” will become more and more popular as people realize they damage done by false and harmful posts.  There are only a few companies that exist now to clean up your Google responses and bury bad posts.   I think dozens more will spring up in the next few years. In the meantime, Field should post a responsive comment to the post (something ROR will always allow) so that at least a viewer can see his opinion of the post.

Any new media will bring good and bad uses along with it. As we are all growing with the internet and making it part and parcel of our daily lives we need to realize its shortcomings and dangers so that we don’t base our opinion of others on one or two posts that may have a dubious source.

4 comments

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  1. Michael Roberts of Rexxfield

    Thanks for publishing your assessment Oscar. Your take on the judge’s misinformed decision is spot on, and unfortunately repeated elsewhere regularly. With respect to posting a rebuttal on RoR; I would suggest that in this instance it would be wise to let sleeping dogs lie. The page in question is ranking relatively low from where i sit. If he adds more content to the page, Google will elevate the diatribe higher in the search engine results; this happens when “stale” websites are updated. Furthermore, if the author has a personality disorder, a rebuttal will often inflame the antagonists into escalating he attacks.

    Respectfully submitted by Michael Roberts or Rexxfield.
    Digital forensics and internet litigation support consultant.

  2. Oscar Michelen

    Your points are well made. It is often so hard to judge whether to rebut the comment or leave it alone and your stance on it makes sense.

  3. Cyberbullying Report

    I think people need to fight bad information with good information visible elsewhere on Google. Especially since you can’t just post a comment about a report like I am doing right here below this article.

  4. Oscar Michelen

    I agree with you, its really the only option at this point. I also like your site and see that as a way that folks can try and get their story out there as well. I especially liked your calling Ripoff Report “a search engine reputation death sentence” Great choice of words and a perfect description.

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