Caution regarding forum entries

Internet forums provide frustrated or angry consumers with the possibility to share their experiences with others. But be careful: Maybe the criticised company, trader, service provider or person reads the forum entry and that could lead to legal consequences.

 

Recommendations, critiques

 

Today, in times of Internet, consumers tend to search for recommendations, critiques or test reports online before they make a decision. Doctors, online traders, service providers, building companies - everyone is one the virtual test bench.  

 

Companies fight back

 

Companies are very well aware of the big influence such positive or negative entries appearing in the hit lists of search engines have on their daily business. Therefore they react very sensitively to bad critiques in guest books, forums and social networks like facebook and try to defend themselves against the accusations with legal steps.

 

Freedom of expression has limitations

 

The right to freedom of expression certainly also applies to the Internet. Companies, employers and educational institutions therefore have to accept published critiques in general. But they can take legal steps against false accusations and impertinent insults.

 

Allegations need to be provable

 

When leveling criticism, the following basic rules should be considered:

  • Telling the truth is generally allowed, even if it hurts.
  • In case of dispute, you need to be able to prove your allegations with documents, emails or other pieces of evidence and with witnesses who confirm your story.
  • If you're not able to do so, you will most likely loose in court.

Name the facts

 

Besides telling the objective facts, you can also share your personal experience or opinion and evaluate the critised company. However, it is important that you base your statements on provable facts. Don't use insults or terms like "fraudster" or "crook", don't let your emotions guide you.

 

The meaning of your postings

 

In case of a lawsuit, the judge will interpret your statements. The basis of this interpretation is not your intention, but rather how a commom reader would understand your posting. The judge will also consider the big picture. All factual claims in the text need to be proven. Your personal evaluations need to be based on facts.

 

Assumptions are risky

 

It's not helpful to phrame accusations as rumours or questions. Sentences like "I've heard that they will face insolvency soon" or "I was questioning myself why they haven't been insolvent by now" mean nothing else but "This company will be insolvent soon." - and you would have to prove that. It is risky to write things you only know by hearsay or that you just assume. In case of a lawsuit you will probably have problems to prove your statements.

 

Social Networks

 

If you post something in a social network, it is likely that your post will not only reach your friends. Most content on the Internet is publicly accessible. You therefore need to consider that your statement could - by intented forwarding or liberal privacy settings - reach third persons who weren't supposed to read it.

 

Content is hard to remove

 

This is aggravated by the infallible memory of the Internet: Content you posted once mostly stays forever and is very hard to remove, maybe even impossible. Google finds postings that date back for years. You as an author often can not avoid that your statements are replicated elsewhere due to answering postings or a "citation" function.

 

You are not anonymous

 

The apparent anonymity on the Internet leads consumers to blow off steam without thinking about consequences. But you should not count on your pseudonym. Operators of Internet platforms are obliged to provide information about the identity of users if a court or an administrative authority demands it. Under certain circumstances, even a request of a private person is sufficient. If users didn't state their real name when registrating on the Internet platform, the provider could still find them via the IP address of their computer.

 

What could happen?

 

Those affected by your criticism could sue you since damages may occur due to your insult. They could demand that you withdraw your accusation, that the withdrawal is published and that you declare not to insult them in this or a similar way anymore. The costs for such a lawsuit can be very high. The critisised party also has the possibility to set legal action against the operator of the Internet platform, who could then claim compensation from you.

 

Complaint against defamation or insult

 

The affected person can take those wo accuse him of ignoble behaviour (like fraud) or insult him ("crook", "idiot") to criminal court due to defamation or insult. He can request the imposition of a (financial) penalty.

 

Complaint against libel or possible damages

 

You should be especially careful if you publish something about your employer or your work. The employer can take legal action against rants and impertinent or false statements. He could file a libel suit or demand a payment of compensation for possible damages he might face due to the accusations. But even if you stick to the truth, caution is required: Forwarding business or company secrets is illegal and could lead to your dismissal. Even if your criticism is justified, it might have unpleasant consequences: If your boss doesn't like your criticism, he might dismiss you at the next possible date.

 

Take into account that your employer might also use Internet forums and social networks.

 

Important tips:

  • Don't let your emotions guide you.
  • Only write about provable facts.
  • Avoid exaggerations and generalisations.

 
04.01.2012