The Federal Court of Australia has handed down a valuable decision for business owners concerned their business reputation is being damaged by a competitor’s misleading online blog posts.  

The decision of Nextra Australia Pty Limited v Fletcher [2014] FCA 399 establishes that, in certain circumstances, the posting of a misleading online blog article regarding a business competitor can amount to conduct which is prohibited under the Australian Consumer Law.  With recent reports indicating there are now more than 150 million blogs in existence, the decision is a timely reminder for those operating a blog for commercial reasons. 

The applicant in the case, Nextra, is the franchisor of a newsagency franchise operating throughout Australia.  The respondent, Mr Fletcher is a director and 50% shareholder of NewsXpress, another newsagency franchise system, and competitor of the Nextra franchise.  Mr Fletcher operates an internet blog under the name ‘Australian Newsagency Blog’.  On 27 April 2011, Mr Fletcher posted an article on the Blog entitled ‘Nasty campaign from Nextra misleads newsagents’ (Article), and referred to a flyer which had been distributed in print form by Nextra.

After publication of the Article, Nextra commenced proceedings seeking orders that the Article be removed from the blog, that Mr Fletcher be restrained from publishing the Article in any other form and that Mr Fletcher publish a retraction of the Article with an apology to Nextra.  

To succeed in its case, Nextra was required to satisfy the Court that the contents of the Article were ‘misleading and deceptive’, and that the posting of the Article occurred ‘in trade or commerce’. 

The Court concluded that the Article published by Mr Fletcher, when viewed as a whole, would leave a reasonable reader with the impression that Nextra had distributed false information in its promotional campaign.  The evidence was that Nextra had not, in fact, distributed false information in its promotional campaign.   

As to whether the posting of the Article occurred ‘in trade or commerce’, Mr Fletcher submitted the Article was merely published in a public forum for matters affecting the newsagency industry.  The Court dismissed this submission and instead found that Mr Fletcher had sought to promote his own commercial interests in posting the Article.  

Accordingly, the Court found that the posting of the Article was done with an inherently commercial motive which gave the conduct the requisite commercial character.  

The Court ultimately ordered that Mr Fletcher remove the Article from the blog and be restrained from publishing the Article in any other form.  In so ordering, the Court remarked that readers of the Article would be misled to form erroneous and negative conclusions about Nextra and added that it was in the public interest for such misleading and deceptive material to be removed from the public forum.

Readers should note that the mere publication of an article should not, of itself, be seen as constituting conduct ‘in trade or commerce’.  Importantly, as in the Nextra case, the particular blog or forum on which the article is published must be one where its owner seeks to promote its own commercial interests.   

Often a misleading or deceptive blog article (whether in stock forums, private blogs or Facebook posts) can be simply and inexpensively removed or retracted through directed legal correspondence with the blog’s owner or the service provider.  If this approach is not successful, remedies such as those used in the Nextra case may also be available to affected business owners.