Sunday, 11 June 2017

Blogging dangers - bullies and the truth

It seems some of my most effective writing is the most dangerous. This is a lengthy  warning to bloggers and communications experts as to how you can run into foul waters even when you haven't done anything wrong.

A year ago I attended a seminar. My blog chronicles my life experiences and interesting events so it was natural I would write a blogpost on this public event. I won't give details about it in case it gets me into trouble -free speech out the window.

It proved to be a hugely popular blogpost, doubling my visitors to my blog over these past six months and building. A 'particular' google search would find my blogpost appearing on the first page. This post attracted by far the most comments around the world of any of my other posts in over 7 years. More than 90% of the comments agreed with my observations and report. Quite a few thanked me for my honesty and clarity and in helping them avoid wasting a day or worse, going into significant debt due to the nature of the techniques used in this seminar. My blog success attracted another sort of attention; from the Dark Side.

What was fascinating was to discover who commented on these seminars and what they wrote. Some of it was pretty strong. People came out of the woodwork with anecdotes to share. One of the commentators had grown up on the same street with this person (then known under a different name) and wrote a lengthy expose, Others expressed horror at how their friends had been parted from up to $40,000. Still others were business coaches who did not approve of this person's methods or fees. One person said he himself was a millionaire and had personally had drinks and meals with various celebrities who were paid by this person. This commentator said these well-known stars didn't care if their brand was sullied by the connection because they were being paid at least $250,000 a pop and that one particularly respected star was usually drunk anyway so what would he care.

You'd be hard pressed to find anything negative about this seminar presenter because anything he doesn't like is threatened out of existence and this is what happened to me. Beware bloggers- so you know the consequences of writing online?

I received a cease and desist letter from a lawyer from a 'cowboy' state. A one-man-band sort of lawyer who accused me of refusing to respond or comply. I was accused of refusing to speak to this millionaire friend of Trump (yes a friend of his) when he called me on my mobile. You what? Yeah, apparently this very busy and important person had tried to contact little me on my mobile. Of course there is no record of this. I was told the organisation had tried to resolve the difficulties with me but I had refused. At first I thought this was some jokey scam but they had my true name and email address. My blog is not in my real name. They had got my details from a silly, useless purchase I had made at the seminar. I got scared.

I was very intimidated and this was their goal, of course. While such threats (cease and desist letters) are not necessarily acted on you can never be sure so it's not a good idea to ignore them. I have huge amounts of stress in my life right now and no money to legally defend my case so I hired an American lawyer who understands defamation and blogs for the cheapest possible email and Skype advice. I've also done a bit of research on the internet. Not one Parisian law firm bothered to respond to my request for help.

Here's what I know:
  • It was probably an empty threat because international court cases are expensive.
  • No French judge would have taken this on as in France you must send such a letter within 3 months of the publish date of the blogpost that defames you. Clearly this cowboy lawyer didn't know that. Elsewhere it is often 12 months.
  • Whose jursidiction? This is a very grey area. The French don't like their citizens being bullied like this and the Americans are strong on freedom of speech. However this guy's activities are international and so is my blog. Tricky.
  • Defammation (libel in this case) has two forms - private or public plaintiffs. In the case of private the plaintiff must prove your blogpost was negligent because a reasonable person would not have written such things. I was certainly reasonable in my content. In my case the plaintiff is in a very public domain very willingly and so must prove I was malicious in trying to destroy his reputation. Highly unlikely he could have succeeded with that. He would also have had to determine how much business he would have lost via his free events due to my post.
  • Bloggers are not legally liable for the content of other persons' comments as per section 230 of the Communications Decency Act 1996. Phew!!!
  • Defammation requires evidence that the content of my blog disregarded the truth, but my content was supported by my commentators and was purely a report on an event.
  • Telling the truth is a defence but proving it can be difficult and expensive. A fair and true report captures the substance and gist of an event, which mine did. I just didn't have the head-space or money to defend my writing.
If you want more information on section 230 visit here...

I hated backing down. As my American lawyer said, "This guy needs to have blogposts written about him so people can make informed decisions." But you'll find it hard to find anything that isn't written by him or his flunkies. He's protecting his business by intimidation of all uncontrolled publicity.  I kept my lawyer in the background because I didn't want to escalate things lawyer to lawyer, so I wrote my responses to his lawyer carefully, myself. The affair is now closed.

Since I took the post down numbers of visits to my blog have diminished but I know that for a time I did save a few folks from heartache and I did at least irritate the guy enough that he eventually reimbursed me the cost of my purchase to shut me up. That was the deal I proposed so maybe I didn't lose everything... just my most globally effective piece of writing to date.

Postscript: If you think you know who I might be writing about please don't post any comments that might identify him on here as I don't want any more hassles. Any other comments are welcome.