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How To Respond To Defamation Online Without Damaging Your Business Reputation In India Defaming statements on the digital media have seen the impact of the victims suffering long lasting injury of reputation

By Anjali Jain

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It is said, "Next to life what man cares most is his reputation."

Defamation has perhaps become a jargon for a common man wherever even an ignorable negative remark affecting the reputation is made by another person. With our Constitutional right of freedom of speech being often misused, what words or acts constitute defamation is not as simple as we commonly understand it. However, nowadays, with us living in a virtual world, defamation too is going online.

Online defamation

Online defamation is perhaps the easiest way to express anguish by a customer or an ex-employee, dissatisfaction or even personal vendetta, unhealthy competition or maybe simply a troll of a public figure or a reputed organization for it is quick, far reaching, convenient and of most free. Defaming statements on the digital media have seen the impact of the victims suffering long lasting injury of reputation, which for a business may eventually end up denting goodwill and subsequently revenue and valuations. Like many other evils with no means to avoid, one can only confront such offences and prevent collateral damages.

Troubleshooting by the Indian legal system

Though defamation isn't specifically a complete codified law in our country as is the Defamation Act, 2013 in the UK, in India, however, defamation per se is defined under S. 499 of the Indian Penal Code. It is also an exception to fundamental right of freedom of speech enshrined under Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India. The right to life now even encompasses right to reputation. Further, legal action against defamation is also provided for in several other laws in the country.

Defamation is a punishable offence also under S. 66F of the Information Technology Act with the liability regarding cyber defamation in India can be on the author of the defamatory material and/or on the service provider or an intermediary, however, an intermediary shall not be liable if it does not initiate or modify such defamatory content but merely acts as a facilitator.

Though one always has legal remedies available for compensation as well as punishment to the perpetuator which may range from a cease and desist notice to an injunction/claims suit or/and a criminal defamation complaint, however, first and foremost priority always being to restrict the spread of the defamatory statements which online generally spreads at the pace of a viral outspread, legal action should be initiated only in extreme circumstances or where a deterrent has to be set.

Discovering the intent and analysing the extent

It is always advisable to first understand the intent behind any defamatory statements before taking a call on whether to initiate legal action or to plan for alternative remedies. Also it is quintessential that one foresees the extent of damage that has or/and can be caused with the defamatory statements not being addressed to so that one can decide as to how to first contain the spread and then look for their removal. As in every dispute, it is always recommended to first address the issue amicably with the adversary and if direct communication isn't possible, it is advisable that the defamatory content is replied to in a subtle manner with a request for a discussion to address the grievance. If humility fails to deliver, then perhaps, going legal is the only way ahead. Legally, you can not only get the content removed from the online platforms but also push for unliquidated damages.

Online reputation management (ORM)

What would have probably been a brainchild or a necessity of aspiring politicians has now got another patron. ORM strategies act as a long-term solution limiting and helping repair the damage caused by any defamatory remarks, especially for large-scale businesses with a ubiquitous digital presence.. Using search engine optimization techniques increases the visibility of positive content which ensures that negative content does not show up or is shadowed by the former.

Already when the Internet had taken control over the physical world, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed us so far ahead in the digital way of life that perhaps, any person, be it a natural or a corporate is now recognized by his/its digital identity and reputation over the internet. The same internet which has been the sole factor behind exponential growth of businesses can also lead the same business meeting a disastrous end. Examples of a small online defamatory remark tumbling even the biggest of business empires are not uncommon. We have also seen the potency of online campaigns and how a spark on the reputation of a business can bring it to ashes in no time. Online reputation cannot be ignored anymore and its time every organization ensured it protected itself from online defamation as diligently as it does from any other threat.

Anjali Jain

Partner, Areness law firm

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