Is the property industry at risk of defamation?Make Text Bigger
Landlord’s Log, the Personal Blog Of Mark Alexander, the Founder of Property118
Try associating the words ROGUE or UNSCRUPULOUS to a trade or profession which is not related in some way to property.
Whether we like it or not, we now live in an age of digital communication and “no win no fee” lawyers. We hear adverts soliciting claims for personal accident and medical negligence on a daily basis but what’s the next big market for the ‘ambulance chasers’?
Could it be internet defamation?
If it is, then the property sector must certainly be full of rich pickings.
Defamation has never been easy to prove when it comes to the spoken word but libel comments (i.e. those in writing) …… well that’s another story altogether.
Back in 2001 the first case of internet defamation was tested in the case of Laurence Godfrey vs Demon internet. The case took four years to come to a head and resulted in a landmark ruling from Mr Justice Moreland who threw out Demon’s defence of “innocent distribution”.
So where does that leave internet forums and review websites?
Where the person making the defamatory comment can be identified at least one channel of litigation is apparent. However, it is very easy these days to get a free email account without giving away your identity and then to create anonymous accounts on forums and review sites and that’s why the Godfrey vs Demon internet case is so relevent. Just because some people are wise enough to ignore comments from posters with names like “Kangorillapig1882” doesn’t make the owner of the website immune to litigation. In law, it is the forum owners who have allowed defamatory comments to be published.
For some time now this has left me wondering what the future is for the popular review based websites and internet forums.
The Demon Internet case is now 10 years old so I did a bit more research and found a UK case where damages of £119,000 were awarded to a Mr John Finn, described as having a “long and distinguished career in the housing industry over a 35-year period”. His business “Gentoo” was engaged in the provision of rented social housing and the regeneration of rundown communities in the Sunderland area. Mr Finn was said to have endured a “malicious and relentless” campaign of libel and harassment.
As you might expect, there were much bigger awards to be found in America. In November 2006, Broward County Circuit Court awarded Sue Scheff fromFlorida $11.3 million in damages. A jury found a Louisiana woman had posted caustic messages against Scheff and her company, claiming she was a “con artist” and “fraud”. The jury found the charges were completely false, so the Louisiana woman had no defence.
My Nan always used to tell me, “if you haven’t got anything nice to say then say nothing”. Wise words in light of the above!
I have to admit, I am a user of many review websites and forums myself. Am I really interested in the negative comments though? Well I might be if I’m checking out a specific product or service provider. However, if I’m shopping around I want to know which businesses my peers are using.
I regularly visit property forums and come across the question “can anybody here recommend a good …… in ???”
What I don’t see too often is “I live in ??? and I want to avoid all the dodgy …… who should I steer clear of?”
Most people in the property sector have a huge network of preferred contacts but do we all know the trusted suppliers of trade and professional services to our peers? I know the answer to that question is no because I have stood at the front of the room at many property networks and asked the attendees to name any three of the preferred contacts for any three of their peers in the room. It is very rare indeed for anybody to be able to do it.
What motivates you to comment online?
Are you more inclined to review with a negative experience rather than offer praise to a business who has done an excellent job?
To what extent are review sites there to allow people to vent spleen rather than be a constructive way to assess alternative suppliers?
Have you previously considered the implications of libel and defamation when using forums and review sites?
Did you know the website or forum owners are also liable for what you write and does this make you consider your comments differently?
How do you see the future of review sites to ensure they do not become too risky for businesses to use for advertising their services?
Mark and his family have been investing in property since 1989, initially in the Norwich area but more recently across the length and breadth of England. Mark created Property118.com as a social network for landlords with a vision of becoming the UK’s leading online directory for businesses providing services to the private rented sector.
Mark’s experiences and strategies as a landlord are shared here
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