No matter the business you operate, modern commerce increasingly takes place online, rarely putting the consumer and your business face-to-face. A recent study revealed that approximately 80% of American consumers buy products online, and 74% of consumers think it is extremely or somewhat important to read online reviews before making a purchasing decision. The average consumer reviews three online sources for information before soliciting a local business, typically: a search engine, the business’s website, and a website containing reviews or testimonials. Small and local businesses are not immune to the internet’s influence, as nearly 40% of consumers seek out online testimonials, ratings, or reviews to evaluate when considering whether to engage a local business for products or services. In fact, consumers cite negative online ratings and reviews as the second greatest reason not to consider a local business for products or services, behind only high prices.
Because consumers consistently turn to online resources to determine whether to do business with you, managing your online reputation is an essential task. You must actively control information about your products, address negative reviews, optimize search engines, and improve your customers’ online experience. In fact, many companies employ full time personnel solely to manage their social media presence.
But monitoring your online reputation becomes even more critical when an anonymous user (aka a “troll”) begins posting harmful or false information. The danger lies in the very nature of the internet, as “any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox.” When that voice spreads false information, interferes with your business, or divulges your trade secrets, what can you do to identify the anonymous user and hold them liable for the harm caused?
Understanding The First Amendment and Anonymous Online Speech
To pursue a claim against an anonymous online user, you must first understand the First Amendment protection afforded online speech. Internet speech is generally granted the same protection as traditional offline speech; that is, most types of speech on the internet are protected to some degree.
The right to free speech online also includes a right to remain anonymous. Far from being hostile to such online secrecy, the courts have held that careful safeguards to protect anonymous online speech are important to preserve “the robust exchange of ideas and allows individuals to express themselves freely without fear of economic or official retaliation [or] concern about social ostracism.”
As in the traditional offline arena, some categories of speech, such as fighting words, obscenities, and false statements, are not protected by the First Amendment. Thus, when trolls exploit the anonymous nature of the internet to post false or damaging information about you, they often exceed the First Amendment’s protections for anonymous online speech. For example, anonymous online users may step beyond the boundaries of protected speech by:
Creating an email account to distribute your CEO’s sensitive personal emails to senior management.
- Creating online accounts to conduct a smear campaign against you with the objective of inducing employees to quit.
- Posting reviews about working for you that disclose confidential or trade secret information.
- Creating a website using your name to complain about your business practices and post negative reviews.
- Posting false reviews of you online by posing as a former customer.
If not for the use of an anonymous online persona, each of these actions could be addressed by filing a lawsuit against the troll. However, anonymity adds a layer of complication as you must either first find a way to unmask the troll’s identity or stop the harmful conduct by some other means.
Strategies to Address Harmful Online Comments Short of Litigation
Before filing a lawsuit to unmask your troll, first consider whether less costly means might stop the conduct or remove the harmful comments. This approach typically depends on the voluntary compliance of companies hosting the content, and thus is not guaranteed to succeed. However, the low cost of this initial step makes it worth considering. Further, pursuing these strategies, whether successful or not, may cause the troll to stop harming you, or to remove the content voluntarily, thereby accomplishing the end goal.
One alternative to litigation is to determine whether the online statements violate the online service provider’s “Terms of Service.” For example, Facebook’s® Terms of Service prohibit users from posting content that “infringes or violates someone else's rights or otherwise violates the law” and authorizes Facebook to “remove any content or information” posted on Facebook that “violates this Statement or our policies.” Twitter® also requires users to ensure that posts comply “with applicable laws, rules, and regulations” and permits Twitter to remove “any Content.” Large online service providers typically offer reporting platforms where you can report a violation of the terms of service and ask to have the false or harmful content removed. Thus, where a post or comment violates the terms of service, a letter to the internet service provider bringing the issue to its attention may be all that’s needed to get the offending content removed.
Another option is to request that search engines, such as Google® or Bing®, “de-index” the page on which the comments appear. “De-indexing” is a request that the search engine voluntarily remove a website from its index, thereby ensuring it will not appear in response to a search about you. Most search engines retain the right to remove offensive content. For example Google’s ® Terms of Service state that Google “may review content to determine whether it is illegal or violates our policies, and . . . may remove or refuse to display content that we reasonably believe violates our policies or the law.” The result is that, while the website containing the false statement still exists, it can’t be accessed in response to a search. The effectiveness of this step depends on whether the content clearly violates the applicable terms of service or is blatantly unlawful, and a search engine may require a court order finding the content to be unlawful before it will agree to de-index the website.
A final alternative is to address the comments from a public relations perspective. You can choose to simply engage the troll in the online forum itself, to address the falsity of the comments or steer the discussion in a more beneficial direction. However, this approach carries significant risk that your comments may be used against you, or may even incite a more passionate, negative response. Thus, this approach should be reserved for unique factual situations that justify a public relations response instead of a legal one.
Identifying the Anonymous Online User
If you cannot stop the harmful online comments through one of the strategies above, you should consider filing a lawsuit to identify the troll and assert the appropriate claims against them. First, however, you need to analyze the conduct and determine whether you have a legal claim against the anonymous user. If so, you can file a lawsuit against the troll and attempt to uncover his or her identity.
Step One: Determine Whether the Conduct is Actionable
The types of claims available to combat online misconduct are generally the same as those available in traditional offline situations.
The most common claim pursued against trolls is a claim for defamation. When a person publishes false, harmful statements of fact about your business ethics or financial integrity, they are likely liable for defamation. Libel—defamation in writing—consists of publishing a false written statement, either deliberately or with at least a negligent disregard for the truth.
In evaluating whether you have a claim for defamation, you must candidly consider whether there is any truth to the comments, as truth is an absolute defense. Likewise, opinions are not actionable. So, if the statements are arguably just opinion, as opposed to a statement of fact (or an opinion that could reasonably be interpreted as stating facts), the anonymous speaker will not be liable. Finally, you must evaluate whether you will be deemed a “public figure,” in full or in a limited capacity. If you are a public figure, whether limited or not, you will be required to prove that the speaker acted with “reckless disregard of the truth.” Because this is a higher standard than negligence, there is a greater likelihood that the troll will not ultimately be held liable for defamation.
In addition to defamation, there are a number of other claims that you may be able to pursue against your troll:
- If the user is directing its harmful comments at a vendor, business partner, or potential customer, the user may be liable to you for tortious interference with a contract or a business expectancy. To succeed, you must have a valid contract or business expectancy; the anonymous user must both know about it and interfere with it, so as to cause its breach or termination; and have no legal justification for doing so.
- If the user publishes false information about your products or services, the user may be liable for trade libel or business/product disparagement. Each of these claims has similar elements, requiring proof that the anonymous user posted a false statement concerning your products or services to dissuade a potential customer from doing business with you.
- If the user is a competitor, and the comments contain false or misleading advertisements about your products or services, the user may also be liable for unfair competition under the Lanham Act.
- If the user posts information containing your trade secrets, the user may be liable under state or federal trade secret laws.
- If the user is a former employee, or had a contractual relationship with you, then the online conduct may violate provisions of that contract, such as nondisclosure or non-compete provisions.
This list is not exhaustive and there may be other potential claims to assert against an anonymous online user.
Step Two: File An Anonymous Lawsuit to Unmask the Troll
Once you identify a viable claim or claims against the anonymous online user, the next step is to file a lawsuit to discover the troll’s identity.
Such a lawsuit is typically filed against an anonymous defendant—John Doe for example—and a subpoena is then issued to the service provider or to the website hosting the content requiring it to identify the user. The service provider or website will likely object, and you will need to ask the Court for an order compelling disclosure of the user’s identity.
There is no universal standard governing when a court will order the disclosure of an anonymous user’s identity. However, most courts apply one of two generally-accepted tests, both of which require a significant showing early in the case that you are likely to succeed on your claims.
The less stringent test requires that you allege facts that—assumed to be true—demonstrate that the anonymous user committed an act giving rise to civil liability. Because the Court is looking only at whether you have sufficiently alleged a valid claim, your initial complaint is the operative document that the court will consider. You must also demonstrate to the Court’s satisfaction that (1) you have identified the anonymous user and the user is subject to personal jurisdiction; (2) you have made a good faith effort to locate and identify the anonymous user; and (3) the discovery sought is sufficiently limited to identify the appropriate user or users. This test, or some variation of the test, is used in some Federal Courts—typically in cases involving less protected forms of speech, like commercial speech—and state courts in Wisconsin, and Illinois.
Most jurisdictions apply the second, more stringent test, which requires you to present facts, in the form of admissible evidence or sworn testimony, establishing that you can prove each element of your claim. This test requires you to provide more than just the pleadings, typically in the form of a statement of facts with supporting documents and testimony. Most states employing this test also require some further steps as well, such as proof that you attempted to notify the anonymous user of the pending proceeding or satisfaction of an additional balancing test to justify unmasking the troll. Federal Courts, and many state courts—including Arizona, Kentucky, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, California, Maryland, New Hampshire, and the District of Columbia—have adopted some version of this more stringent test.
If it is not obvious from the nature of the statements that they are actionable, some courts may also require an evidentiary showing that you can prove a valid claim before they will order the troll’s identity disclosed.
Thus, if you file a lawsuit to identify the anonymous user, you must be prepared to present the facts that support your claim much earlier than in traditional litigation. Since most states apply the more stringent “evidentiary” test, the best practice is to prepare to satisfy that test, even if the less stringent test might be applied.
The factual evidence necessary to compel disclosure of an anonymous user’s identity will likely include, at a minimum: (1) copies of the offending posts; (2) sufficient evidence to demonstrate the posts are false, unlawful, or violate the terms of an agreement; (3) sufficient evidence to show that the comments are directed at you, if necessary; and (4) evidence demonstrating that you have suffered damage as a result of the comments. You should be careful to save copies of the offending posts before alerting the anonymous user that action is being taken, in order to guard against any attempt to edit, delete, or restrict access to the comments.
Step Three: Sue The Troll!
Once you have an order compelling disclosure of the anonymous user’s identity, you can serve that order on the service provider or website and expect a response. However, the response may not always identify the user, but may only give you the user’s IP address or other electronic information. You may need to issue additional subpoenas to service providers in order to identify the user of the IP address and ultimately discover the anonymous user’s identity.
Despite having an order in hand compelling disclosure of the anonymous user’s identity, you may still face obstacles from the service provider or website. Typically, large companies that host comments online resist disclosure of their users’ personal information for as long as possible. Thus, they may raise objections to disclosure, justified or not, ranging from invocation of the Stored Communications Act to the Video Privacy Protection Act. But, with the order in hand, you should be able to dispose of these objections through letter-writing, involving the court only if necessary.
Once you know the identity of the anonymous user, you can now amend the lawsuit to substitute the appropriate person for “John Doe.” With an actual defendant named, you can then begin the lawsuit in earnest to hold the no-longer-anonymous user liable for trolling online.
The prospect of trying to identify an anonymous online user can be daunting. But, armed with an understanding of the First Amendment and the applicable procedure, you can readily evaluate whether an anonymous user has engaged in unlawful conduct and whether you can successfully hunt down the troll to hold him or her liable. Good hunting!