What is Internet Libel?

G. Wiesen

Internet libel is a specific form of libel that happens on a webpage on the Internet. This type of libel can occur on just about any sort of website, including blogs, bulletin boards, and forums. It usually consists of a defamation of character from one person toward another, and is usually untrue or otherwise serves only to harm the reputation and character of another person. Internet libel is often difficult to prove in the US, since a great deal of communication is protected under the First Amendment to the US Constitution and Internet legislation is still a developing area of regulation.

Constitutional rights can make Internet libel hard to prove.
Constitutional rights can make Internet libel hard to prove.

Sometimes also called cyber-libel or cyber-slander, Internet libel typically consists of statements made by one person about another that are untrue and serve to defame the character of the target. Libel, in general, refers to a statement that acts as a defamation of character made in writing or some other form of permanent media, typically a book, magazine, newspaper, and now on the Internet. This is in contrast to slander, which is a defamation of character that is spoken or transitory in nature, often more difficult to prove due to a lack of a lasting record.

Internet defamation that is printed out and widely distributed may classify as libel.
Internet defamation that is printed out and widely distributed may classify as libel.

Internet libel is typically untrue and the statement must be made as a statement of fact, not opinion, to qualify as libel. In countries that protect a person’s right to free speech, such as the US, someone can freely state an opinion, even one that defames the character of another person. A statement is typically considered libelous only if it is made as a statement of fact. Internet libel also usually has to be untrue, and a defense of truth can generally be used against a lawsuit or similar legal action against someone accused of libel.

There are exceptions to the truth defense, though these are somewhat rare. If a statement is made that is true, but serves no purpose other than to defame a person and does not benefit the common good, it could still potentially be considered Internet libel. This can be a hard case to make, however, and untrue statements made as fact on the Internet are still often the only types of communication that constitute libel. Internet libel can be especially damaging due to the way in which information spreads on the Internet; once a statement is made on a website, it can be nearly impossible for that statement to be completely removed from the Internet.

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Discussion Comments


If a company makes untrue statements about you without mentioning your name, but it is a known fact that with their description of you and or your services, people know who you are, can you prove defamation?


@SkyWhisperer - I think even some legitimate Internet sites could be targets for these lawsuits if they’re not careful.

For example, some websites offer consumers the opportunity to post online reviews of work they’ve had done for them by contractors.

While these are useful sites, a negative review could potentially be interpreted as libel; according to this article, even stating the truth could be libelous depending on how it’s phrased.

So yes, in the Internet world, I think we should all behave ourselves, regardless of the many temptations to do otherwise.


@David09 - Whether the services are effective or not, there will always be lawyers ready to pounce.

Cyber law is a whole new specialty for them, and there will be many opportunities for litigation. With that in mind, I offer everyone a word of advice: be careful what you say online. This would be an analog of the famous exhortation to be careful what pictures you post online.

The Internet is unforgiving. While blogs and stuff give us the freedom to rant, your rants can be used against you. There are many ways to express disagreement without engaging in personal attacks and character defamation.


@NathanG - Personally, I don’t know how useful such a service would be. Let’s suppose they found examples of Internet defamation; perhaps it was a disgruntled customer or an ex-employee who said unkind and even untrue things about a business.

What could the company do? They could insist that the remarks be taken down from the website, on threat of a lawsuit. But stuff that is posted on the Internet lives on forever, even when it’s taken down.

It can be cached somewhere or simply repeated by someone else. I agree with you, it’s a tall order.

Perhaps it’s meant to be more of a deterrent than anything else. Businesses could have a cyber sticker on their websites which reads something like, “Monitored by such and such reputation management service.”


Online reputation management seems to have become a business unto itself, from what I’m hearing.

There is this company on the radio that advertises a service which monitors your reputation online. It’s almost like a credit monitoring service, except that instead of watching your credit, they are looking at what people on the Internet are saying about you.

For the general Internet user this may not matter much, but the service is being pitched to businesses which could be adversely impacted by negative reviews online.

I say, such a service is being asked to deliver a very tall order. The Internet is very huge, and I don’t think you can monitor every place that an opinion is made which could be libelous. Anyway, the company seems to have a thriving business in either case.

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