A reader came to me this week with a problem. He was being sued in federal court by a company claiming he had defamed them online. That will be $75,000, please. I’m not getting into who the reader is, which company is suing, even what jurisdiction, because none of that matters here. But the case is real and I feel for the reader. So let’s come up with a way to make sure this doesn’t have to happen again.
America is a very litigious society. We love to get all riled up and sue each other, whether our claims are valid or not. In this reader’s case he is accused of making improper comments in an online forum. Seventy-five other people are also accused in the suit, but they are John Does — unknown individuals. Now we begin to see where that $75,000 claim came from. “All of you defamed me but only one used his real name so he can pay for everyone.”
In this case investors were discussing a public company the shares of which they did or didn’t own, liked or didn’t like, and the company seems to feel the criticism was both unwarranted and hurtful. So they sued, much to the surprise of my reader, who thought he had a right to his opinions.
Of course we have a right to our opinions. It’s expressing those opinions that sometimes gets us in trouble. I say a lot of strong stuff right here but I also try to do it carefully. It helps if you are telling the truth, of course, but I find it useful even then to clearly identify strong statements as my opinions: “It is my opinion that he is a crook.”
After all, I could be wrong.
Many lawsuits are warranted but some look to me like bullying or even legal extortion. Sometimes it is cheaper to pay an undeserved settlement than to pay even more to win and get nothing. Big companies play this game. But everything is relative: my HVAC contractor sued me for not paying him for the work he didn’t do, following what I believed (note, this is my opinion) to be a similar legal strategy, figuring that I would pay to make the nuisance go away. Only I didn’t pay. That’s not my style.
But a lot of people do pay and I would guess (again, my opinion) this can have a chilling effect on public discourse even to the point of affecting the public’s right to know.
So let’s fix the system. Here’s my idea. If I were Facebook or Google+ or LinkedIn — web sites that like to serve as centers of discourse — I’d offer my members a legal plan. No annual subscriptions or pre-payments necessary, but there would be a $500 deductible. Remember this is for legal services, not for paying settlements, so if you lose you pay the damages, though not the associated legal bills.
Let’s imagine Google gives this a try, because they’ll try just about anything that can be reduced to an algorithm as this can be.
Hire a top law firm; charge a $500 deductible for $1 million in legal services; show a profit by scaring the crap out of people with cleverly written form letters actually sent by androids; rinse, repeat one million times.
And it would work. People would think twice before writing words they might later regret. But if those words were truly heartfelt and the cause important enough they might be worth $500. And those being talked about might still pursue lawsuits, but it won’t work well for them because Google will always have more money than they do. Game over.
This could be the idea that puts Google+ over the top.
So if you happen to work for Google and agree this is a fabulous idea, I’ll be happy to license it for a very modest sum. But if you just take the idea and run with it, remember one thing.
I’ll sue you.