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I appreciate that cross-border legislation is a nightmare but does anyone have any idea where I might stand?
So I would say you were on dodgy ground. But then again thats the UK. You say 'boo' to a goose in the UK and you can get arrested for harrassing the goose. Well, if you say it twice.
In the US is should be a lot more liberal, but you need a US expert and that isn't me.
Oh, except to say - if you haven't any money they probably won't waste theirs trying to get it.
[Note I edited this to correct a factual innacuracy]
IF you get a letter from them, refer it to your solicitor. Don't contact them directly.
Remember - if they want to sue you for libel, then they're going to have to bring up the original matter in court. You might want to *politely* remind them that they will have to go on public record about the original problem, despite the fact the original post has been removed.
Knowing most real estate agencies, even if the original allegation isn't true, they won't be too keen on bringing it up as it'll probably drag something else up!
Been in the same position myself (recruitment agencies instead on real estate though) - in the end I found it was less hassle to just not allow specifics on the forums.
The main issue is that given our profession, any mention of a company, even on a forum is likely to end up ranking right behind (or even ahead of) the company for a brand search in the SERPs. That's a nightmare for any company, but for industries where dirty tactics are common it ends up dragging you into a dumbass rivarly war between different agencies - it's just not worth the hassle.
In one of the cases where I refused to remove the comments (didn't think they were all that bad tbh), the company contacted my host and threatened them with legal action, who then threatened me with the bill for their lawyers. Fortunately my hosts are pretty cool and gave me a heads up before anything kicked off and I (very) reluctantly backed down.
These days I'm a little more objective - there's loads of people out there that will misuse your good faith just to stick one into their competitors - it's not worth the hassle.
At the end of the day you can educate your community about dodgy tactics without mentioning specific company names and that is what is important.
That said, if I had the money and the legal team to back it up, I'd be all for throwing a cat amongst the pigeons to take down some dodgy operators. ;)
Forum owners sometimes comment that their largest annual expense item is legal fees, for exactly the kind of issue you describe.
From a purely business standpoint, probably the wisest decision is to remove the controversial content when you are contacted. This will almost certainly be the lowest-cost, lowest-risk route.
It may seem like you are caving in to the demands of crooks. You are, but is standing your ground worth losing the forum and your business or personal assets? Even if you are legally correct, a well-funded opponent can still drain you.
If you have the resources to fight it, or if you have no resources and don't care, then standing your ground may be a good option. And there's probably a significant chance that these threats are all bluster. Just be aware of the risks of calling their bluff.
In the meantime, review your TOS and be sure they are full of suitable disclaimers.
In addition I've learnt the following from the lawyers I've contacted, perhaps something will be of use to others:
1. To some degree this is still a grey area with legislation both differing between countries and still being under development within the countries themsleves. However, there is evidence to suggest that the balance of the argument is swinging in favour of the parties bringing such complaints and away from forum owners (each case, of course, still being judged individually).
2. I have been told that as the Internet is a worldwide medium and whatever is published can be viewed worldwide it may be possible for action to be brought in almost any country against the forum owner. Equally, I've been told that action would be brought in the country when the complainant resides or the country where a website is registered. Like I said, a grey area!
3. Just to repeat the point. Removing material as soon as someone asks you to do so would seem to be the best way of avoiding action against you.
In this case I've yet to hear from the company in question (fortunately). It has been suggested to me that offering to publish an apology at my site would be a sensible way of cooling things off. I think that's good advice. I'm not going to do so (at this stage, anyway) because I'm still infuriated by the attitude of the company in question and I don't honestly see that I've got anything to say sorry for but nevertheless it's a good strategy for anyone else who might find themselves in the same situation (and can see things with a more level head!).
Thanks to everyone for their help and support, much appreciated.
So someone from the company contacted me and asked to remove posts. Well initially I talked him out of it and agreed to keep an eye on future posts (which I would do anyway). But I've decided to remove some lately that are potentially more libellous. I hope this was the right decision, but we'll see. I don't have the resources to investigate the truth behind every thread that appears on my forum.
I'm starting to see the virtue in WebmasterWorld's refusal to allow us to discuss specifics. It seems strict, but it must make for a whole lot fewer legal headaches.