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Online Reviews - Part 1

By Cliff Ennico

"I want to put a hyperlink on my website to an article somebody else wrote on another website, so that readers could read the article and then respond whether negative or positive on my website what they thought of the article. Is this legal?"      

The short and easy answer is that it's probably legal.  The tougher question is:  should you do it?     

A "link" or "hyperlink" is a connection between two sites.  If you have ever read a text online and noticed that certain words were highlighted in a different color, those words are a "hyperlink".  If you click on those words, you will be automatically transferred to another website where those words are explained, expanded on, or whatever.     

There are two possible objectives you could have in doing this. 
  • You disapprove of the article's content, and want to generate negative reactions to that article on your website so as to support your own position (this is commonly known as a "hate site")

  • You want to create a site where people can comment on the article, either positively or negatively (this is commonly known as a "review site").     

First, the good news:  American law encourages free speech, on the Internet and elsewhere.  While it is generally good practice to ask someone for permission before linking to their website, it frequently isn't done, and is not required where your purpose is to comment on the other site's content.  Even if your opinion is a little - shall we say loopy? - you have the absolute right to express it online.  Just like other people have the right to tell you what an idiot they think you are.     

But what if someone views the content, reacts negatively, and posts a long-winded "rant" on your website which calls their sanity into question.  Are you legally responsible for that?     

Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act gives online "publishers" absolute immunity for things that are said by third persons (people unrelated to the publisher) on their websites.  So if someone says something bad about the article or its author on your website that isn't true and is designed to damage the author's reputation (what lawyers call "libel" or "defamation"), you are in the clear unless you "actively contribute" to the defamation (for example, adding a blog posting of your own with more inaccurate and damaging information).     

Now for the bad news:  just because what you are planning to do is legal doesn't mean you should do it.       
If you are planning a "hate site," you can expect to hear fairly soon from the article's author (or his lawyers) asking you to "cease and desist" posting derogatory Web postings.  While you have the legal right to ignore that request (or post it on your website as a sign your bloggers' contributions are having some impact), that right won't prevent the author or the other website from suing you and forcing you to assert your First Amendment or Section 230 defense.     

You will almost certainly win the lawsuit, and there's a chance a sympathetic judge will make the other website reimburse your legal expenses if the judge feels the other website's lawsuit was "frivolous" or "without merit".  There is no assurance, however, that a judge will do that, and the casebooks are filled with silly lawsuits brought solely for the purpose of shutting down a Website that cannot afford the time and money to mount a legal defense, even if justified (the technical term for these lawsuits is "strategic lawsuits against public participation" or SLAPPs).     

So think carefully before you set up this link on your website.  At the least, you should set up a "screening" feature for this blog so you can look at postings before they appear on your site and either edit or delete ones you think are going to get you into trouble.     

I really question the value of "review sites" in any event, especially after hearing a "horror story" from a friend of mine.  This friend is the author of several popular "how to" books on a particular subject.  When his latest book appeared on, he immediately received three negative (one star out of a possible five) reviews which lowered the book's status on Amazon's search engine.  When my friend investigated, he discovered that two of the three reviews were from e-mail accounts originating at the publisher of a competing book.      

My friend called his publisher, which launched an immediate counterattack - having 20 of their junior staffers post favorable (five star) reviews of my friend's book from their personal e-mail accounts in order to offset the three "negatives".  The other book's fans counter-counterattacked with more negative reviews, and so forth.     

The last time I looked, my friend's book has a four-star rating with reviews from over 80 unique Amazon users . . . not a single one, I suspect, has actually read the book.

Cliff Ennico (, a leading expert on small business law and taxes, is the author of "The Crowdfunding Handbook," "Small Business Survival Guide," "The eBay Seller's Tax and Legal Answer Book" and 15 other books. Permission granted for use on

Tags: Budget, Finances, Internet-Media, Tips
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