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Online Reviews: Part I

Cliff Ennico on

"I want to put a hyperlink on my website to an article somebody else wrote on another website so that readers could read the article and then respond, whether negatively or positively, on my website what they thought of the article. Is this legal?"

The short and easy answer is it's probably legal. The tougher question is: Should you do it?

A link or hyperlink is a connection between two sites. If you have ever read a text online and noticed that certain words were highlighted in a different color and could be clicked on, those words are likely a hyperlink. If you click, you will be transferred to another website where those words are explained, expanded on or whatever.

There are two possible objectives in doing this:

--You disapprove of the article content and want to generate negative reactions to that article on your website so as to support your own position (this is commonly known as a "hate site").

--You want to create a site where people can comment on the article, either positively or negatively (this is commonly known as a review site).

First, the good news: American law encourages free speech, on the internet and elsewhere. While it is generally good practice to ask someone for permission before linking to his or her website, it frequently isn't done and is not required when your purpose is to comment on the other site's content. Even if your opinion is a little, shall we say, loopy, you have the absolute right to express it online. Just like other people have the right to tell you what an idiot they think you are.

But what if someone views the content, reacts negatively and posts a long-winded rant on your website that calls his or her sanity into question? Are you legally responsible for that?

Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act gives online "publishers" absolute immunity for things that are said by third persons (people unrelated to them) on their websites. So if someone posts something on your website that is bad about the article or its author, isn't true and is designed to damage the author's reputation (what lawyers call libel or defamation), you are in the clear unless you "actively contribute" to the defamation (for example, by adding a blog post of your own with more inaccurate and damaging information).

 

Now for the bad news: Just because what you are planning to do is legal doesn't mean you should do it.

If you are planning a hate site, you can expect to hear from the article's author (or his lawyers) fairly soon asking you to cease and desist posting derogatory comments. While you have the legal right to ignore that request (or post it on your website as a sign your bloggers' contributions are having some impact), that right won't prevent the author or the other website from suing you and forcing you to assert your First Amendment or Section 230 defense.

You would almost certainly win the lawsuit, and there's a chance a sympathetic judge would make the other website reimburse your legal expenses if he or she feels the lawsuit was frivolous or without merit. There is no assurance, however, that a judge will do that, and the casebooks are filled with silly lawsuits brought solely for the purpose of shutting down a website that cannot afford the time and money to mount a legal defense, even if justified (the technical term for these lawsuits is "strategic lawsuits against public participation," or SLAPPs).

So think carefully before you set up this link on your website. At the least, you should set up a screening feature so you can look at postings before they appear on your site and either edit or delete ones you think are going to get you into trouble.

I really question the value of review sites in any event, especially after hearing a horror story from a friend of mine. This friend is the author of several popular how-to books on a particular subject. When his latest book appeared on Amazon, he immediately received three negative reviews (one star out of a possible five), which lowered the book's status on the Amazon search engine. When my friend investigated, he discovered that two of the three reviews were from email accounts originating at the publisher of a competing book.

My friend called his publisher, which launched an immediate counterattack: having 20 of its junior staffers post five-star reviews of my friend's book from their personal email accounts in order to offset the three negatives. The other book's fans counter-counterattacked with more negative reviews, and so forth.

The last time I looked, my friend's book has a four-star rating with reviews from over 80 unique Amazon users. Not a single one, I suspect, has actually read the book.

Cliff Ennico (crennico@gmail.com) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series "Money Hunt." This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our webpage at www.creators.com.

 

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