Online Comments, Real World Costs

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It all started with a clock. Michael Steadman was perusing eBay when he came across a $44 clock that he liked and decided to buy. This wasn’t the first item he bought on eBay, but Steadman now claims it will be the last.

According to The Orlando Sentinel, the clock “arrived in three pieces that didn’t fit together or even seem to be the same model.”  Stedman took advantage of eBay’s buyer protection guarantees and returned the item to the seller and got his money back. But he still felt ripped off, and like many eBay users before him, he decided to voice his frustrations in the form of an angry comment. He opened up the seller’s eBay profile page and wrote, “Bad seller; he has the ethics of a used car salesman.”

That exchange probably sounds unmemorable to most eBay users and Web browsers in general. But then the seller, Elliot Miller, who also turned out to be a lawyer, decided to file a $15,000 defamation suit against Steadman, claiming the comment “damaged his reputation and his previous 100% eBay satisfaction rating.” Miller claims he clearly advertised the clock as not having “any guarantees” whether it would actually work. The lawsuit was served back in February 2009, and since then Steadman has shelled out $7,000 in legal fees. A $44 purchase has turned into an expensive debacle and it’s still not over yet.

“I have a second mortgage on my house, and I am a new business owner, so I’ve either got to keep the business going or get my attorney fed,” he said, according to ABC News. He’s now decided to proceed with the case representing himself.

The case and any judicial decision is still pending, but we can look back at previous incidents to get some sense of how it might play out.

Last year, a Chicago woman was served with a $50,000 libel lawsuit by a property management company for ranting about her “moldy apartment” in a post on Twitter. “Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty think it’s okay,” she tweeted.   That suit was thrown out at the beginning of this year after a judge argued that the tweet in question was “really too vague” and “lacks any context.” In fact, her defense lawyers actually went so far as to point out that Twitter sometimes “contains… silly speech that is ‘drivel.’”

On the other hand, there is the case of Liskula Cohen, a former model, who sued the anonymous creator of a blog called Skanks in NYC for claiming she was promiscuous and calling her “an old hag,” among other things. A judge decided this constituted a form of defamation and ordered that Google reveal the identity of the user who started the blog, allowing a lawsuit to move forward. Many took this to mean that not even anonymity can protect users from being sued for bashing people online.

Yet, it’s only common sense that, just like in the offline world, there would be limits to launching character assassinations online with or without justification. The question is whether the defendants in these lawsuits have actually passed over that threshold. The eBay case certainly seems different, since the site is supposed to allow an open forum for users to review and critique one another.

So perhaps the best comparison is a case in which Christopher Norberg decided to use Yelp, a popular review site for businesses, to criticize his chiropractor as being “dishonest” for allegedly overcharging him. The two parties ended up settling out of court. Norberg later posted an explanation on Yelp saying he should have been more willing to discuss his feedback with the doctor, rather than just criticize him unwaveringly. In truth, if users like Steadman and Miller could have reached out to one another and discussed the matter (online or in person), it might not have escalated into such a pricey drama.

What do you think? Should people be able to criticize anyone they want online, or should there be limits? And feel free to leave some negative responses in our comments section. I promise I won’t try to sue you.

—For a comprehensive credit report, visit the BankingMyWay.com Credit Center.

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