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Uncovering the Identity of Anonymous Internet Posters

It’s no secret that the Internet is a way to attract new customers. Positive reviews on Yelp!® or Angie’s List® can drive business to the doors of restaurants, medical professionals , plumbers, DUI attorneys, and all types of service providers. Unfortunately, false negative reviews can just as quickly scare customers away, and because most review sites allow posts to be made anonymously, you might have no idea who defamed you. Maybe a competitor is behind it, but unless you uncover his or her identity, you will have no way to recover damages for the harm you have suffered. Enter the “John Doe” lawsuit.

Because the anonymous poster is unknown, a business can sue the unnamed defendant (“John Doe”), bringing claims such as defamation, invasion of privacy, or tortious interference with business relations. After the suit is filed, the business then serves a subpoena on the web site, seeking the identity of the poster. Recently, an appellate court in Virginia ordered Yelp! to reveal the identities of seven individuals who posted anonymous reviews of a carpet-cleaning business. Elarbee Thompson attorneys have had similar success uncovering the identity of anonymous Internet attackers.

Often times, the anonymous poster will ask the court to deny enforcement of the subpoena, arguing that the First Amendment right to anonymous Internet speech outweighs the business’ right to seek a remedy for the harm. Courts generally apply a balancing test to determine whether the speaker’s identity must be revealed. While the precise standard varies from state to state, it is universally agreed that the law does not protect defamatory speech. As a result, when a review is demonstrably false, businesses have a good chance of unmasking the poster. Once the individual is identified, the lawsuit can proceed against the wrongdoer in an effort to recover damages. Alternatively, if the individual does not have the resources to pay a judgment, the business might simply choose to negotiate a settlement that includes the removal of the defamatory review and a promise that it will never happen again.

If you have questions about how to handle Internet attacks, please respond to this elert or contact your Elarbee Thompson attorney.

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