Website Reviews - Are the Reviewers Legally Exposed?
By David Poulton ~ Partner, Minter Ellison
Wednesday, 14th October 2009
A bad restaurant or hotel experience can be frustrating, but while it may be satisfying to share that frustration online, the downside is that website reviewers potentially can find themselves in court facing a very costly and lengthy defamation civil lawsuit, or, in extreme cases, criminal prosecution.

The introduction of Twitter, Facebook and other interactive social networks has empowered people to share their views and have their views heard. 

But often people are not fully aware of the amount of power they actually have. What was originally considered a harmless story or clip on YouTube, done in jest, can be seen around the world and could cost the author the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of (US) dollars.

Individuals have the power to damage someone's reputation or put them out of business.

People need to be mindful that although posting comments online offers a degree of anonymity, if someone wants to complain about a posting, they can probably track down the author if they are determined enough.

It's also worth remembering that most of interactive social networks sites won't protect their users and, if faced with a lawsuit, there will be terms and conditions that require users to indemnify them.

Legal battles are not only costly but also can drag on for months if not years. The first notification might be someone turning up to the author's front door with a writ – not a good situation to be in.

In Australia and many other countries there are laws that provide for damages.  So, if a person whose been defamed claims they have suffered embarrassment, hurt or humiliation, they can be entitled to large sums of money. If a salacious review is posted on a website and destroys a business such as a major restaurant or hotel, then damages could run into millions of dollars.

What sort comments could land a web reviewer in hot water?

For individuals, the traditional definition of defamation in most Commonwealth countries is something that brings a person into hatred, ridicule, or contempt. If you denigrate someone personally or make them a figure of fun, that can be defamatory.

If you are talking about a business, perhaps a restaurant, and you say the chef is incompetent or the service was poor – all those things can be defamatory under the laws of many countries.

The next question is: can the comments be defended?

So how do website reviewers minimise risk?  Answering that question is beyond the scope of this brief article, but a good start is to exercise moderation in the criticisms made and seek to stick to provable facts – not always an easy thing to do in the fast-paced milieus of social networking websites. 

And just like those who travel physically, these virtual tourists who publish their comments around the world via these websites should also seek to have some basic awareness of the laws and customs of the country where the reviewed business operates, in order to reduce the chances that they will offend against those laws or customs while venting their displeasure over their unfortunate dining or accommodation experience.

David is a partner in our Insurance and Corporate Risk, and Media groups.

He has a strong focus on personal injury law, and is a client relationship partner for the Victorian WorkCover Authority. He has major involvement in handling claims, and provides strategic advice to VWA in relation to all aspects of its business.

He also practices in media law, including defamation and contempt law, with extensive experience in providing pre-publication advice. David also deals in all areas of general insurance and liability law, including public and product liability, property, professional indemnity insurance and maritime litigation. d

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