A jeweller who fabricated malicious comments about a rival on a popular forum using third-party accounts has been ordered to pay $85,000 in damages and costs by the High Court, in the first such case in Singapore.
The court order issued last month also barred Vivo Diamonds from using the two accounts for further defamation, through its officers or agents.
There have been lawsuits involving defamation in cyberspace but this is the first reported case in Singapore of a company found liable for online defamation made through a third party.
JannPaul, a bespoke jeweller dealing in precious gems and diamonds, had sued Vivo for spreading malicious falsehoods on popular forum Hardware Zone (HWZ).
JannPaul is derived from the names of founders Jann Tan and Paul Hung and its products are marketed at a unit in Far East Shopping Centre in Orchard Road.
Last October, it won an award for small and medium-sized enterprises, conferred jointly by the Trade & Industry Association (Singapore) and Asia Business Journal. It also sells more than 100,000 diamonds online.
Its competitor, Vivo Diamonds, which has a showroom at Tanjong Pagar Road, also operates a website offering access to more than 60,000 diamonds.
Vivo had made the offending posts on HWZ in 2012 by using identities allegedly purchased from credible forum users.
Vivo posted an advertisement titled "Make Money, Sell your hardware zone forum userid" in October 2012, seeking to purchase existing accounts of good reputation. It offered up to $200 for accounts that are more than three years old.
Three of the offending messages against JannPaul were posted on a popular HWZ forum thread "Wedding Bells, Proposal Ring Part 2" under the "feitonglong" identity that Vivo had acquired. Another six appeared under an account named "sacredsoul".
The posts, made between October and November 2012, variously referred to JannPaul, two of its senior officials and its products.
The accounts were used by Vivo to allegedly mislead forum readers about JannPaul's products, stated court documents.
JannPaul hired digital forensic specialist RP Digital Security to ascertain if the posts were fabricated.
In a probe from November 2012 to March last year, the specialist traced some 98 e-mails responding to the advertisement on buying HWZ accounts to eventually identify Vivo as the advertiser, using the IP address uncovered and other leads.
The previous owner of the "feitonglong" account helped JannPaul clarify the issue by posting a disclaimer on the same thread in January last year.
Through Drew & Napier lawyer Wendell Wong, JannPaul followed up with a High Court suit against Vivo and a settlement was reached in February before Assistant Registrar Paul Quan.
Mr Jann Tan said the firm felt relieved that "our names have been cleared".
"Those few months were extremely hard and stressful for us," he said.
"We put a lot of effort into building relationships with each client and these defamatory posts undermined the trust consumers have in our brand."
VIVO DIAMONDS' MODUS OPERANDI
- Advertised on Gumtree to buy existing Hardware Zone accounts; willing to pay up to $200 for credible accounts more than three years old.
- Used identities of two Hardware Zone accounts acquired to fabricate malicious comments and defame rival on popular Hardware Zone forum threads.
HOW IT GOT CAUGHT
- Digital forensic sleuth probed e-mail to Gumtree advertiser and traced identity of advertiser.