Can Businesses Protect Their Online Reputation From Anonymous Defamatory Reviews

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Can Businesses Protect their Online Reputation from Anonymous Defamatory Reviews?

Negative reviews from disgruntled customers are a reality that most businesses will have to face from time to time. But once those negative reviews are anonymously published online, business owners are often powerless to control their digital reputation. That may be about to change with the 2020 Federal Court decision of Kabbabe v Google LLC holding cyber-giant, Google, responsible to a Melbourne business owner for a detrimental one-star rating published on their reviewing service.

What are the Facts of Kabbabe v Google LLC?

Dr Matthew Kabbabe (the applicant in this case) is a dental surgeon and the owner of a teeth whitening clinic in Melbourne. Dr Kabbabe, like many business owners, relies on the digital “word of mouth” Google facilitates with its review forum to promote his business to the public.

Before a review from an anonymous user under the pseudonym “CBsm 23” gave Dr Kabbabe’s business a one-star rating, the business held a perfect track record with an average of five stars.

This review not only affected the average rating attached to Dr Kabbabe’s business when searched on Google, but was accompanied by an extensive condemnation of the business and a warning to all potential customers to “STAY AWAY!”. Dr Kabbabe claims this review alone has had a profound impact on his business.

On 27 March 2020, the Federal Court of Australia decided that Dr Kabbabe should be allowed to serve Google headquarters in the United States with an application to force Google to reveal any information related to de-identifying “CBsm 23”. If successful, Dr Kabbabe could then bring defamation proceedings against the author of the negative review.

Why is this Case so Ground-breaking?

Kabbabe v Google LLC has provided a clear pathway to navigate the often difficult task of serving an international party in a court proceeding.

In summary, the court must be satisfied of the following:

  1. The application is accompanied by an affidavit outlining various matters, including the country in which the person to be served resides – in this case, Google LLC in the United States;
  2. The court has jurisdiction to hear the matter – which it did as a proceeding under the Federal Court Rules 2011 for an order to reveal information about a potential respondent (the identity of “CBsm 23” in a defamation action);
  3. The matter involves a cause of action arising in Australia – which, naturally, it did;
  4. The person applying has, on the face of it, a case against the respondent – which according to the court, Dr Kabbabe did have against Google to have information relating to the identity of “CBsm 23” revealed.

What does All of this Mean for Business Owners?

The fourth point above is the most significant takeaway for business owners.

Through this decision, the Federal Court has signalled to other business owners who may be facing financial hardship from a negative Google review, that obtaining information about anonymous “keyboard warriors” is not impossible. This is evident by other business owners already taking advantage of this decision, with a further application of this nature being heard relating to a Melbourne solicitor, and a class action against Google in the works.

Despite this issue still being in the “watch this space” stage, business owners can take comfort that Kabbabe v Google LLC, and the widespread attention it has drawn, has prompted “CBsm 23” to withdraw their negative review, and remains as a warning that online reviewers are not safe behind anonymity.

Business owners should keep in mind that there are legal avenues available to them if someone is defaming their business online, whether anonymously or not. Ultimately, a demand to remove the defaming review, and if necessary, an action in defamation are viable options and is something South Geldard Lawyers can assist you with.

Do you feel someone has posted a defamatory review of your business online? Contact our Rockhampton Solicitors team at South Geldard Lawyers.

It is important to seek specific advice regarding your circumstances as this fact sheet provides general information only and does not constitute legal advice.

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