Resolving Online Defamation in the Internet Age

Resolving Online Defamation in the Internet Age

Given the enormous growth in online defamation claims on social media, almost all requesting a removal of defamatory comments, these claims are not ideal for court-based resolution and should be subject to an alternative resolution framework. In the recent Law Commission of Ontario’s conference, Defamation Law and the Internet: Where Do We Go From Here?, experts discussed how online defamation claims can be efficiently resolved. The expert panelists advocated for an automated system to resolve disputes, using an “online dispute resolution” (“ODR”) model. Such a model would allow the multitude of small claims generated through internet communication to be resolved more efficiently and cheaply than through human adjudication.

The first panelist to speak, Professor Emily Laidlaw of the University of Calgary, laid the groundwork for why online defamation is an area of law that needs an overhaul. First, she noted that Facebook alone receives over 2 million defamation-related complaints per week, almost all of them requesting only a removal of the content. This means we are dealing with a high volume of low cost cases and this does not reflect traditional courtroom lawsuits that are generally centered on financial damages and thus can be worth the litigation cost. Second, the question of jurisdiction remains unclear, as defamatory statements made online do not easily fall into a single jurisdiction when the interaction is online and crosses provincial or national borders. Third, claimants do not have simple options to resolve their claims. Currently, claimants can complain to the service provider (if the defamatory statement was made on a social media service) or sue in court. Professor Laidlaw pointed out the shortcomings of both options and why there needs to be a new alternative.

The first option places control of the dispute in the hands of private companies like Facebook and Twitter who have their own terms and conditions that define the rights of the parties. This lacks the legitimacy, due process, and standardization that a dispute resolution framework needs to be effectively operate. The second option means expensive litigation over jurisdiction to bring the action and then to obtain an injunction. Furthermore, Prof. Laidlaw pointed out that most claimants just want a comment deleted from the internet, not damages, and the cost of bringing the claim in court is disproportionately large.

The second panelist, Professor Ethan Katsh, Director of the US National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution, spoke of measures that some large companies have employed to resolve high volumes of small online defamation claims. For example, companies like Alibaba and eBay have implemented ODR technology that resolves 80-90% of complaints between buyers and sellers through automated processes. This leads to enormous savings of time and cost, as Alibaba and eBay alone receive 100 million and 80 million such claims, respectively, each year.

Since online defamation disputes can be resolved through automated online processes, Professor Katsh’s discussion focused on how these disputes can be prevented through ODR technology. He pointed out that online defamation is not the only area that ODR can be effective, and that the legal world should be more focused on implementing ODR in disputes that do not require substantive legal analysis and judgement.

For example, Prof. Katsh pointed out that mediation is about controlling the interaction between two parties without imposing a final decision, a process perfectly suited to computers through automated messaging applications. Another area is when online platforms do not verify the accuracy of users’ identities, which can lead to defamation claims based on comments that were made by an avatar, a robot, or people misrepresenting themselves. Computer programs can verify the accuracy of records, which filters out claims against bots and other non-human online interactions.

Finally Darin Thompson, a lawyer for the BC Government and adjunct professor at Osgoode and UVic, spoke about the newly launched Civil Resolution Tribunal (“CRT”) in BC: an online tribunal that resolves small claims and condominium disputes through an automated mediation process. While the CRT is not available for online defamation disputes, it is a model for future ODR technologies in other areas of the law. The CRT seeks to achieve the same efficiencies that private companies like Alibaba and eBay have achieved by resolving most disputes without any human interaction. The CRT features a diagnosis and self-help portal that helps claimants categorize the type of claim they wish to make and what their options are, followed by an online monitored chat where parties can exchange communication and attempt to reach a settlement. If a settlement cannot be reached, lawyers for the BC Ministry will intervene and adjudicate the matter.

The panel discussion shows there are ODR regimes in place that are effectively reducing the stress on the justice system in areas where the nature of the dispute does not involve significant financial or criminal risk. Online defamation claims fit the ODR model well because they tend to be equitable claims for a deletion of a defamatory comment, not a claim for damages.

At the same time, there are unresolved questions: Would ODR be mandatory or optional? What if there are many claimants launching a class action against a single individual? What if the system crashes? Even if the defamatory comment is taken down, what if it has already been copied and re-posted? Notwithstanding these concerns, online defamation consists of a staggering multitude of small claims. Imposing a simple automated solution to resolving these disputes would be a cost-effective way to reduce some stress on the justice system and make the internet a more civil place.


Roger Angus is an IPilogue Editor and a JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.