A Myrtle Beach lawyer whose firm received a scathing review on the Google Plus social networking site is suing the Internet giant in an attempt to unmask his anonymous critic in a case that could set a precedent for how web-based services handle unflattering comments posted on their sites.
Scott Umstead filed the defamation lawsuit on behalf of his law firm, naming Google and John Doe — the unknown critic — as defendants. Google has filed a motion seeking to have the lawsuit dismissed and a hearing on that matter is scheduled for Nov. 18 in Conway.
Umstead already received a default judgment against John Doe, because the person who wrote the review never filed an answer to the lawsuit.
This isn’t the first defamation lawsuit against Google and similar Internet services that allow users to post anonymous comments and reviews on their websites. For example, a Virginia lawyer in 2012 filed a lawsuit against Yelp, alleging the business-review site acted with “reckless disregard” for the truth when it let a user post a review accusing the lawyer of “blatant incompetence.” That lawsuit is pending.
Most Internet-based review sites have successfully defended themselves against lawsuits by citing the federal Communications Decency Act of 1996, which provides immunity from liability under state and federal laws for interactive computer services that let unrelated parties post content to their sites.
Google has cited the Communications Decency Act in its case with Umstead, calling itself a “protected interactive computer service provider.”
Umstead said his lawsuit is different than the others because he is accusing John Doe — not Google — of the defamation. Umstead said he only wants Google to remove the negative review and provide the identity of the reviewer.
Umstead said he does not believe the reviewer was an actual client because of the “hateful language” that was used.
John Moylan, a Columbia lawyer representing Google, did not respond to a request for comments.
The dispute started about three years ago when a person identifying himself as “A Google User” posted a negative review of Umstead’s law firm on Google Plus. Umstead said in court documents that the reviewer’s comments were false and that they have damaged his reputation. Since then, three positive reviews of the law firm have been posted.
Umstead initially contacted Google in an effort to get the negative review removed, but the company never responded to his three emails and a final letter giving Google seven days to take down the post.
Umstead said he realizes most defamation lawsuits filed against social networking sites are an uphill battle, but that’s because plaintiffs have been going at them the wrong way. Umstead isn’t trying to hold Google liable for any damages — that claim is reserved for John Doe — so the federal law shouldn’t apply, he said.
“The John Doe action I filed is very unique, because most people want to sue Google or Yelp [directly],” he said. “Google is just a necessary party in my case because they have the information I need.”
Umstead said he isn’t exactly sure what he’ll do with the information if he gets it.
“I might call them [John Doe] to see what their beef is or I might take further legal action,” Umstead said. “I want to know who it is so I can deal with it in whichever method is most appropriate.
“We have a right to free speech, but it’s limited,” he said. “I also have a right to protect my reputation.”