Opinion

Felix Salmon

Internet libel suit of the day

By Felix Salmon
September 30, 2010

What is Charles Smith thinking? He’s the winemaker at K Vintners, where he makes very expensive wines, and occasionally shares them with bloggers such as Blake Gray. One blog entry on Smith and his wines produced some comments saying that he is more of a wine promoter than an actual winemaker. Smith’s assistant, Andrew Latta, responded in the comments with simplicity and anger:

Charles and I work side by side on these wines. All the vineyard visits, the punch downs, the pressing, the racking and blending must have just been for photo ops.

The comment thread died out within a week, as comment threads are wont to do, and the story would normally end there.

Now, however, Charles Smith has decided to sue the anonymous commenters! I’ve turned the lawsuit into a PDF and put it here, in case you’re interested.

It’s hard enough to sue people for libel when they post under their own name; when they post anonymously, it’s pretty much impossible. Still, Smith is trying: he’s sent a subpoena to Google, who publish the blog, asking for the IP addresses of the commenters in question. And it seems, although it’s not clear, that Google is going to comply with the request.

I doubt that a list of IP addresses is going to help Smith win the suit, or even identify the commenters to the satisfaction of a court of law — but maybe he just wants to find out who left the comments, and has a suspicion which might be confirmed if he gets that data.

From reading the comments on both blog entries, Smith might well be the kind of person who uses the expensive and elaborate tool of a libel suit just to try to find out who’s saying rude things about him on the internet. But if he does think he’s found out who the commenter is, that person is liable to find themselves defending a lawsuit, which is never pleasant or cheap even if you win.

If the person being sued is the person who left the comments, then being sued is itself harsh punishment for what’s little more than mean gossip. And if the person being sued did not leave the comments, then the whole thing could turn out to be extremely unfair indeed.

I do hope that Smith had bothered to read up on the Streisand effect before filing this suit. As Jim Caudill, one of Gray’s commenters, says, this suit is a prime example of how not to handle criticism:

I think counsel for CS failed to mention that this approach will only bring renewed attention to the comments he finds libelous, as this is tweeted and posted and reported on again and again.

Smith would have been much better advised to take the Randall Grahm route, and simply set up a blog of his own. He could use it to respond forcefully to critics, and to show clearly his involvement in making his wines. Instead, he decided to show the world that he’s a thin-skinned bully. Which is certainly not going to make me remotely well-disposed towards his wines.

Comments
2 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Your intuition is very good on this issue, Felix – these suits are often more about unmasking the commentor (say, because you think he’s a competitor) than about the alleged libel. They’re often dropped once the party is identified.

Posted by AnonymousChef | Report as abusive
 

Maybe I have the wrong impression but I thought that some of the comments sounded like they might have come from employees of Smith’s. In which case what he is trying to do is find out who they are and fire them. Just my opinion.

Posted by JohnOmeara | Report as abusive
 

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