The Wild West days of the Internet’s digital frontier could be tamed, as bloggers await the outcome of a lawsuit in which one of their own was sued for comments posted on his Web log or “blog.”
State College, Pa.-based blogger Aaron Wall was sued in August for defamation and revealing the trade secrets of Traffic-Power.com, a company that helps Web sites boost their rankings on search engines.
But the firm isn’t taking Wall, 24, to court for what he said about them _ but rather, for what readers of his blog posted as comments.
The case has raised the ire of bloggers across the Internet, outraged and fearful that companies that don’t like what is written about them can sue.
“This kind of thing raises my dander,” said Ian McAnerin, a consultant and blogger who founded a search engine industry group, Search Marketing Association North America. “The speed at which blogs are updated and comments can be made on them makes it very difficult to have editorial control,” he added.
McAnerin said he expects more lawsuits like the one against Wall as the Internet and blogs become more commercial.
That worries what McAnerin calls “the little guy,” individual bloggers without financial or corporate backing, such as Greg Jarboe. The Acton, Mass.-based blogger runs a search engine-focused marketing firm. “I have a blog, and I call them like I see them,” said Jarboe. “I like to think it’s my First Amendment right.”
Chris Soller, an attorney who specializes in First Amendment issues, said bloggers, like journalists, should be careful about what they are writing and who they are writing about.
The casual, informal tone of blogs, is a potential minefield of legal liability. The First Amendment doesn’t mean that bloggers are free from writing without repercussions. “In every state there are defamation and libel laws that apply,” Soller added. But Wall’s attorney Ariel Stern said that because the Internet and blogging in particular are so new, it remains to be seen how the courts will rule.
Will bloggers be treated like newspaper reporters, protected by the First Amendment but subject to libel and defamatory laws, or will they be treated like “common carriers,” such as telephone companies, and not held liable for what other people write and say? Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act protects Internet service providers and Web sites from liability for information posted by third parties. But the courts have yet to decide if bloggers enjoy those same privileges. It’s his job to convince the court, Stern said, that bloggers fall in the same category as Internet service providers and Web sites.
Wall is in the search engine “optimization” business and maintains several Web sites, including www.SEObook.com, where he muses about how to get Web sites at the top of the results list on popular search engines, such as Google and Yahoo.
Wall admits to being a critic of Traffic-Power.com and to posting negative comments on his site about the company. He also acknowledged “pretty harsh” comments on his blog about Traffic-Power.com made by third parties.
A recent story in the Wall Street Journal reports that Traffic-Power.com was removed from Google and Yahoo’s databases for questionable tactics in helping its clients appear higher in Web-search results.
Traffic-Power.com’s attorney, Max Spilka, did not return requests for comment.
Wall said when he received a cease and desist letter from Traffic-Power.com’s attorney earlier in the summer, he initially offered to remove comments about the company from his Web sites. “I was gonna look like a (fool) and they were gonna waste hundreds of hours of my time. It would’ve took too long to comply.” So he didn’t.
Traffic-Power.com served Wall with legal papers, he hired a lawyer and posted the lawsuit documents on his blog.
Despite his legal woes, Wall said he won’t stop blogging. He has raised money, via his Web site and from links to his blog from other sites, to pay for his legal fees. But he won’t say how much. “I can’t say, it won’t help me, it’s like giving info to the evil people on the other side.”