A first: Company found guilty of defamation via third party
DESPERATE to sink a competitor, a jewellery company resorted to buying accounts from users of a popular Internet forum and using them to post comments casting doubts on its competitor's products.
On Feb 25, Vivo Diamonds was ordered by a court to pay rival company JannPaul $85,000 in damages and costs.
It is the first reported case of a company being found liable for online defamation made through a third party.
In October 2012, Vivo posted an advertisement on the online forum Gumtree titled "Make Money. Sell your hardwarezone forum userid". Up to $200 was promised for accounts over three years old.
Vivo received a total of 98 e-mail messages in response to to the advertisement. Of these, Vivo picked two accounts - "feitonglong" and "sacredsoul" - which, according to court documents, were used to make "serious allegations" against JannPaul.
Using the "feitonglong" handle, Vivo posted three messages on Hardwarezone under the thread "Wedding Bells, Proposal Ring Part 2" which claimed that a diamond ring purchased by the user and his fiancee was of "poor craftsmanship".
He said that the $8,000 diamond ring had been worn for only five months and that JannPaul "should be responsible" as the diamond had fallen off due to shoddy handiwork. He also added that his fiancee was devastated and he did not think he would dare to patronise JannPaul again.
Separately, under the name of "sacredsoul", Vivo posted six messages, this time making claims that JannPaul had engaged in deception or misrepresented its products, by removing inclusions - which are impurities in a diamond - and reshaping the heart and arrow designs of a diamond in photographs sent to him.
Part of his posts read: "The amount of contrast in the photos is disturbing. It would be better to request from them a non-edited photo of the real diamond and compare the difference."
Another read: "Editing the photos, removing the undesirable to create beauty and attraction, that to me is just not right."
Vivo had also purchased a third Hardwarezone account - that of forum moderator "Xjedi" - to delete replies from JannPaul, as well as ban its accounts, to "skew the Hardwarezone forums to its advantage".
Vivo's actions came to light after JannPaul hired a digital forensic specialist to investigate the identity of the forum users behind the defamatory comments.
With the help of RP Digital Security and Gumtree, JannPaul contacted individuals who responded to the advertisement, as well as tracked down the IP address of the advertiser behind the advertisement - which was discovered to be Vivo.
The court also granted an injunction to JannPaul, restraining Vivo from further writing, printing or publishing of the messages made under "feitonglong" and "sacredsoul" or similar words that would be defamatory to the former.
The co-founder of JannPaul, Mr Jann Tan, called the past few months "extremely hard and stressful".
"These defamatory posts undermined the trust consumers have in our brand," said Mr Tan. "We are relieved that this issue has finally come to an end and that our names have been cleared".