MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA, 25 FEBRUARY 2010 Legal counsel Martin Bennett has a short message for those who allow themselves to attack reputations over the internet, imagining they are safe under the cloak of anonymity. ''You can be hunted down and found,'' he said yesterday.
Mr Bennett has done just that for a Perth client, winning $30,000 in damages and costs, an apology, and undertakings from a man, from Colac, in the Australian state of Victoria, that he won't post any more defamatory comments.
The hunt for the man's true identity proved the stuff of private detective novels updated into the age of blogs.
It is, Mr Bennett said, one of a very few such actions in Australia against the author of anonymous postings on an internet forum. He predicts it is the tip of a legal iceberg.
''There has been an increasing proliferation of internet chat sites where people feel free to hide their identities and make defamatory comments about companies and their executives and directors,'' he said in a statement released after the case in the Supreme Court of Western Australia was resolved.
The action against Graeme Gladman began after highly uncomplimentary comments appeared last November under pseudonyms on the HotCopper website, a stockmarket forum.
The postings related to technology security company Datamotion Asia Pacific Ltd and its Perth-based chairman and managing director, Ronald Moir. One posting appeared under the pseudonym of ''witch''.
Datamotion and Mr Moir hired Mr Bennett to launch defamation proceedings. But first Mr Bennett had to track down ''witch''. He asked HotCopper to reveal the identity of the person registered under that pseudonym, plus two others under different pseudonyms, but HotCopper refused.
Mr Bennett then took court action, forcing HotCopper to turn over its files. ''Unfortunately, the registered membership name appeared to be false,'' he said. ''It turned out to be attached to an escort service in Geelong.''
But Mr Bennett was not prepared to concede the trail was cold. He told The Age he did not wish to reveal the details of his next detective steps, but the upshot was a defamation action against Mr Gladman alleging that, as a result of his postings, Datamotion and Mr Moir had been ''brought into hatred, contempt and ridicule and thereby suffered damage''.
It was resolved last week, with Mr Gladman agreeing to pay damages totalling $20,000, taxed legal costs of $10,000, and to provide apologies and undertakings not to publish further defamatory postings.
Mr Bennett has launched two more cases. Both are pending before the WA Supreme Court.
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