Birmingham Wragge team to focus on online comment defamation
Birmingham’s largest law firm has launched a new team to track down people who make anonymous comments about companies online.
The Cyber Tracing team at Wragge & Co was set up to deal with what the law firm said was a rising problem with people making anonymous statements that defamed companies, and people sharing confidential information online.
And Wragge boasted the new team would ensure there was “nowhere to hide in cyberspace”.
The four-strong team at the Colmore Row firm is a combination of IT litigation and employment law specialists.
One of the members of the team said redundancies and other reorganisations caused by the recession meant the numbers of disgruntled employees looking to get their own back on employers or former employers was also on the rise.
Adam Fisher said: “Organisations are suffering quite a lot from rogue employees at the moment, partly because of redundancies or general troubles.
“We have had a number of problematic cases where people have chosen to put things online or have shared information on their company email access.”
He said much of the job involved trying to get Internet Service Providers to give out details of customers who had made comments online.
IT litigation director Patrick Arben, another member of the Cyber Trace team, said: “People sell counterfeit products, fraudulently send money to incorrect accounts, leak confidential information or publish defamatory statements on the internet anonymously. Many think they will never be caught. Often businesses think the same, unaware they can actually do something.”
False or misleading statements made online can have a massive effect on the fortunes of companies.
Just over a year ago, shares in American firm United Airlines fell by 99 per cent in just 15 minutes after an outdated story that the firm had filed for bankruptcy was forced back onto the headlines.
In what was rumoured to be a deliberate move, a story from six years earlier about United Airlines going bankrupt was voted up on a newspaper website. This was later picked up by Google News and eventually the Bloomberg news wire, which published it automatically as if it were a news story.
This set off a spiral of share disposals and further bad coverage, dragging down the value of the stock to rock bottom levels.
Trading in the company’s shares eventually had to be suspended, and the stock eventually returned to its previous level. More than 15 million shares changed hands during the panic.
A spokeswoman for Wragge said: “Courts can compel Internet Service Providers or telephone service providers to make information available regarding registered names, email addresses and other key account holder information.
One growth area is identifying individuals involved in leaking confidential information, such as client or financial details, to competitor companies. With the help of employment law specialists, the team can assist both in finding the source of such leaks and advising on any subsequent employment aspects.”
But there are fears that cracking down on online comments could stifle free speech, and the ability of people to act as whistle-blowers to expose actions by their employers.
Online journalism lecturer and blogger Paul Bradshaw said it was important for democracy that there was an outlet for anonymous reporting.
And he added that trying to crack down on information online can often cause it to be spread further.
This is known as the ‘Streisand effect’ online, after a case where singer Barbara Streisand tried to suppress photos of her California beachside home from a publicly-available archive of photos taken to document coastal erosion.
The case resulted in huge publicity for the previously-obscure archive, meaning hundreds of thousands more people ended up seeing the pictures than before.
Online comments: for and against
Paul Bradshaw is a lecturer in online journalism at Birmingham City University, blogger at onlinejournalismblog.com and a founder of investigative journalism site helpmeinvestigate.com.
He said it was vital not to stifle debate and that anonymity could give people the chance to blow the whistle on shady practices.
He said: “I think probably the best example is to point to Nightjack. This was the guy who was blogging on the front line about police work and he was forced to stop this story because he was unmasked by The Times. I think it’s important to democracy that voices like that are allowed to be heard.
“The same applies to the NHS and the nurse who worked undercover. I think there is a strong case for people to have that opportunity without the fear they are going to be unmasked.”
But he added the situation was getting more difficult to regulate as more people became web users. He added that ultimately there was a lot that could be done by people managing websites to keep up the level of discourse.
He said: “It’s just getting more complex. If you allow a lot of anonymous debate by people who are not regulated, you can get it descending to the common denominator. If you allow people to register with an identity, even if it’s not their real one, you bring the level of debate up.”
And he added: “It’s quite ironic that you have got powerful people who can protect their privacy very strongly, but you have also now got corporations that will attack the privacy of those they think hurt them. The key thing is not to attract more publicity to the case.”
Richard Ives is a solicitor at international law firm Pinsent Masons and a part of the Out-Law online law project.
He said ISPs were loath to give out details unless specific legal action was taken, and companies needed to keep a close eye on what was being said about them online.
He said: “The libel question is an interesting one because it raises the question of who to go after – the ISP or the message board?
“I don’t think necessarily the issue is about whether contributors are anonymous. What is important is whether organisations closely monitor what’s going on on message boards.
“Generally, unless ISPs are confronted with a court order or a clear request from law enforcement agencies they would be very loath to give that information out.”
But he said there was a precedent for going after ISPs, adding: “There was one case a couple of years ago that we just keep referring back to where a defamatory comment was made and it wasn’t taken down for a period of time. Because of that the host of the website was held to be liable.”
And he said the ‘Wild West’ era of the internet was in some ways coming to an end, with firms starting to crack down, although many had still not quite grasped the situation.
“I think certainly in terms of monitoring, firms are being a lot more savvy about what’s going on on both message boards and social media networking sites, and whether people are making defamatory comment,” he said.
“But I think there is still a bit of an open question over whether companies are cracking down in an organised method.
“I think companies are still grappling with whether it’s better to take it on the chin and hope people don’t see the comments, or on the other hand cracking down on everything that’s particularly damaging that’s said online. Maybe this is set to change.”