People who believe their professional reputations or personal integrity have been unfairly impugned by materials anonymously posted on the internet are not defenseless against their unnamed tormentors.
Is it possible to discover the identity of those behind anonymous posts? Yes. But it’s not easy, especially if you don’t have experience communicating with the various webmasters, and a comprehensive understanding of not only the applicable federal laws in play, but also the various state laws, which differ, and can be especially confusing when you, the online troll, and the website are all in different jurisdictions. Sometimes the laws of more than one state may apply, which then raises an even more complicated legal issue called conflicts of law.
Nevertheless, unmasking the anonymous online troll requires a systematic and methodical approach that must be tackled step by step. The first question you must answer is — On which platform do the objectionable materials appear? Arguably you should first determine whether the objectionable material is actionable under existing law, however, the requisite standard for removing the objectionable material often differs depending on where the material is posted, which is why it’s usually best to start by identifying the medium, including ALL syndicated or duplicate publications.
Most online service providers (OSPs), like Facebook, Yelp, Google Plus, etc., have policies in their terms of service (ToS), which provide guidance for having objectionable content removed from their sites. Unfortunately, the process is different for every site. Website operators are faster, and more likely to remove objectionable materials when intellectual property violations, such as copyright or trademark infringement are involved. This is because the most important/prominent law governing online service providers, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA), contains “safe harbor” provisions allowing OSPs, without penalty, to take down materials that infringe on people’s copyrights if they do so “expeditiously” upon learning of the infringements contained in postings.
Many people are successful at sending DMCA takedown notices themselves, and sometimes that makes the problem go away. But if your DMCA takedown notice is unsuccessful, or the OSP doesn’t respond, if you didn’t have an attorney who specializes in intellectual property and/or internet and privacy law, you will likely need one at that point.
The identities of anonymous posters are held by the OSPs, and most providers are going to require people seeking to discover the identities of those behind anonymous postings to get a court order before they will reveal their identities.
Materials that anonymously or falsely malign a business almost cry out for a business owner or company to respond. If you are in a situation where your business is either being hurt or is going to be hurt, then there is really nothing to think about in terms of whether to fight back (unless you don’t care about your business). If you can prove the damaging statement is not true, and it’s truly defamatory, that’s a surefire way to get a court to issue a takedown order. There is no First Amendment protection for false and defamatory statements. If somebody calls you an “asshole,” that is objectionable, but it is not defamatory. But if you are a restaurant owner, and somebody says you put chopped-up fingers in the chili, that’s a different scenario. That gives a quest for redress a lot more teeth because of how obviously detrimental that kind of allegation could be to a restaurant’s business.
But what about fighting anonymous postings of the “asshole” variety? People may bristle at being branded that way on the internet, where the characterization can be seen by thousands, if not millions of people. But the opinions of a critic, anonymous or otherwise, are rarely defamatory unless they contain claims of fact that can be refuted. Calling a person a “crook” or a “thief,” for instance, is often objected to by the those alleged to be “crooks” or “thieves.” Even then, claims of defamation are difficult to prove. Anonymous opinions may bruise the egos of their targets, but getting real redress may prove even more bruising to the patience (and pocketbooks) of the maligned.