Free Speech Issues On the Internet

    September 28, 2005

The boundaries of free speech are oft debated and rarely decided conclusively. The issue with Traffic-Power is no different. The search-marketing firm has had some troubles recently. The company is going after two websites in a high stakes free speech issue they may help define and determine the future of what people can say on the Internet.

First, lets establish that the business Traffic-Power has a right to protect its reputation and even rebuild it if that’s the case. Any business has that right. The problem is to what extent can they go to protect that business.

There are two cases in the mix here but both of them address the basic issue of what one can say on the Internet. It’s no big secret the Internet is forcing the change of many rules and laws and the freedom of speech issues remain at the forefront.

In the past, people who had a beef with a business had a limited number of options. A person with a complaint could picket a business as long as the picketing happened on public property and the person made absolutely clear their own personal experiences in dealing with a particular company. Any extrapolation or commentary outside of those experiences would leave a person subject to legal action.

Other routes could include maybe taking out an ad in a paper, although it can be expensive or perhaps just simply word of mouth. The Better Business Bureau, a local chamber of commerce or some other local organizations could provide some relief. The Internet has changed much of that.

While most businesses still have brick & mortar stores, businesses based completely on the Internet create new problems with ways to tell others about one’s poor experiences.

So how does one deal with the Internet speech issue? A blogger can write any old thing on their blog and generally, it’s limited to one’s own experiences but the kicker comes in when others begin to comment.

The lawsuit against Aaron Wall and his blog SEOBook stems more from comments others made regarding Traffic Power more than what Wall actually said. How responsible are bloggers and posters for the comments made by others, in some cases anonymously, regarding their story?

The issue against may be more pursuable in one respect in that it’s essentially a picketer of the business. It’s quite possible that’s how this case will be ruled. Did the owner of the site limit his comments to his own experience? Once again the question that pops up is how liable are the site owners for the comments of others?

In most traditional libel cases, the truth is the best protection. The problem with comments at both sides is that it’s all unsubstantiated hearsay with no real way to prove it in most cases. These comments can affect business for Traffic Power, regardless of the intent of the site.

This brings us to the main issue of the whole thing and that is free speech versus the facts and the truth. The lawsuits are over the comments of others, which most people who follow blogs know, can be pretty colorful. In many cases, the snowball hits these blogs and tons of people comment on subjects they don’t know much about. In many cases, unless these commenters can produce specific evidence supporting their claims, they could possibly be sued. But it’s easier to sue the primary owners of the sites.

More than a few feel these cases may be SLAPP suits to get people quiet about Traffic Power. Many successful companies solicit reviews of their products and services in a public forum and have been quite successful with The reality of the situation for Traffic Power is they can’t control everything being said about them all the time and that’s a problem for them.

John Stith is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business.