It seems that internet free speech may not be as free as I first thought. This story comes from The San Antonio Express News
DALLAS, Ga. (AP)—When Alan and Linda Townsend were unhappy with the sprayed-on siding applied to their house, the frustrated couple launched a Web site to complain and to give other unsatisfied customers a forum. Visitor postings to the Web site said the product, Spray on Siding, cracked, bubbled and buckled. For their efforts, the Townsends got slapped with a lawsuit by the product’s maker. The federal case may help shape the boundaries of online speech.
I’ve visited and even posted on some of these complaint sites in the past to blow off steam on various products deficiencies or a company’s lack of service. Some of the better know sites are Complaint.com and the airline site bashing United’s service Untied.com.
I’ve never thought much about it, as the majority of the posts seemed to be escalations of issues that customer service departments seemed unable or unwilling to resolve. What I do find disturbing though is the way many of these sites get steam rolled by the brute force of some of these companies.
Companies routinely go after individuals when they feel people are maligning them on the Internet. And often, legal scholars say, the Web site’s owners don’t fight back at all.
In this dispute, North Carolina-based Alvis Coatings Inc., which supplied the siding product used in the Townsends’ $16,721 project, claims the couple’s Web site infringes on the company’s trademarks, defames its product and intentionally misleads and confuses consumers.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that they’re doing more damage to their company by not resolving this issue out of court instead of attacking one its customers.
Internet law expert Doug Isenberg of Georgia State University said the courts need to better define free-speech issues for the Internet, and this case could help.
“The right to criticize is certainly protected in general, but it is not unlimited,” Isenberg said. “Some of those limits include how you can use someone else’s trademark.”
The complaint filed by Alvis alleges that the name of the Townsends’ Web site, spraysiding.com, “is confusingly similar” to the official Alvis site, sprayonsiding.com, as well as its trademark “Spray on Siding.”
Levy argues that the Townsends have the right to use the domain name they purchased.
Courts have provided greater protection to non-commercial sites, such as the Townsends’, “but it is not quite so cut-and-dry to say if it is non-commercial use it’s acceptable,” Isenberg said.
Judges also weigh whether a person is likely to confuse the gripe site with the real one, said Wendy Seltzer, staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based civil-liberties group. A site that bashes a product is not likely to create such confusion, she said.
It will be interesting to see how this one turns out. I imagine that the courts will find in favor of the Townsends, aside from the trademark infringements, and they can keep blasting away. In the meantime, there is comfort in the fact that site owners are not responsible for the actions of their visitors.
A federal law offers some protections to Internet providers for content their visitors post or transmit, and courts have separately held that criticism when framed as opinion is not libelous, legal scholars say.