In May of 2005, the Blog Herald reported on the case of Travel Golf Media, a blog and review site that covers golf courses across the country. The company behind the site site, two of its bloggers and its owner, Robert Lewis, were being sued by a Las Vegas golf course owner Billy Watson for defamation after the site had posted a series of negative reviews.
Though disputes over negative reviews are common, what makes this one unique is allegations that the negative reviews were a form of retribution for an advertising arrangement that ended. In a ruling handed down last month, judge Jennifer Togliatti agreed and awarded the golf course and its owner, Billy Walters, a $9 million award for defamation.
Even as Pay-Per-Post and similar paid-review sites take a drumming in the blogging world, it is easy to forget that the concept of paid reviews are nothing new as is its sibling, review extortion, where the writer threatens to pen negative reviews of a service unless they are paid a certain amount of money.
However, where pay-per-review services are primarily an ethical issue for most bloggers, review extortion also raises serious legal problems, as the Lewis case points out, and is something that bloggers need to be aware of and avoid.
According to reports in the Lewis case, Lewis and Walters had an advertising relationship for about two years prior to February 2005. The deal was for Lewis to provide referrals through the various sites in his network using both reviews and advertisements.
However, sometime before the contract had expired, the relationship soured and Lewis demanded nearly three times the amount to continue it. When Walters declined to renew the contract, the tone of the reviews seemed to change quickly.
Where reviews had been glowing prior to the expiration of the deal, saying things such as “The views are magnificent with Sunrise Mountain supplying the backdrop,” they become much more hostile afterward, including the quip “And you thought the Exorcist was scary?” included in a May 2005 review.
According to Lewis, he had been receiving negative letters about Walters’ courses when they were partners but, since Walters was a sponsor of the site, they withheld the letters. At some point, they changed their policy and decided to publish all the letters. Also, according to Lewis, the blogs in question began after the partnership ended.
After a three and a half year legal battle, the judge came down on Walters’ side awarding him the $9 million in damages, casting serious doubt about the future of Travel Golf Media. However, the case provides a valuable lesson about bloggers as to why they should be careful what they say online and why they say it.
Shake Down Journalism
The kind of reporting Lewis is accused of is sometimes referred to ask “Shake Down Journalism” It is where journalists, in exchange for an advertising arrangement or some sort of financial gain, withhold negative reviews or information.
On blogs, this could be anything from censoring negative comments to, as in this case, threatening to post negative reviews. Since the Internet can hold incredible sway with potential buyers, especially of big-ticket items (vacations, cars, etc.) such negative feedback can severely hurt a business. As more and more people use Google for their research, Web journalists will have more and more influence over purchases.
However, bloggers have a great deal of protection when posting their thoughts on goods and services. Not only does the Section 230 Communications Decency Act provides bloggers with protection against defamation suits due to comments or guest blog posts, but defamation law in general protects your right to express your opinions, it is only statements that are provably false that may raise defamation issues.
Despite this, defamation and other legal issues can arise against bloggers that use negative reviews as a form of revenge or retribution for some unrelated activity. It is acceptable to post a negative review of your cell phone company if you feel they provide bad service, but not because they didn’t advertise on your site.
Though cases such as this one are very rare, it is still a legal pitfall bloggers need to be aware of and one that, as the Lewis case has shown, can be very costly.
All in all, it comes down to respect and common sense. Most of the legal problems on the Web can be avoided completely by treating others with respect and thinking about what you are doing. It is really that simple.
For the most part, the law was written for situations were common decency and mutual cooperation breaks down and people can not resolve their own differences without some kind of mediation. Those situations are fortunately very rare and almost never arise so long as people follow common decency.
In short, if you’re a good member of the Web community, you likely won’t have to worry about these issues. Though it is important to be aware of what the law says so you know your rights, for the most part, your danger of being sued, especially successfully, is minimal so long as you don’t do anything that you would not want done to you.
Be honest, be fair, be safe. It is that simple.