Provide online dispute resolutions for consumers

DESPITE the existence of consumer tribunals and sector-based dispute resolution centres, Net users find it alluring to rant — rightly or wrongly — over products and services because companies and businesses are presumed to value their brand and corporate reputation.According to a Forbes report, 97 per cent of business owners in the United States say online corporate reputation is important to them. In Malaysia, there are several firms managing online reputation while social media influencers are also paid to give positive reviews for products and services.Studies have shown that complaints by social media influencers are likely to have a happy ending compared to those who possess no clout or online influence. However, social media complaints could attract legal risks if found to be false or malicious.Social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, offer real-time advantages for consumers while companies resolve to ease anger about issues affecting products or services. Some of the sectors prone to social media complaints include airlines, e-commerce portals, the education sector and employment-related issues.Our focus is on posting, which could damage a company’s reputation under the Defamation Act 1957. Social media complaints, however, have blurred the fundamentals of complaint handling, such as confidentiality, privacy and transparency.If one must complain via social media against a business, it is important to ensure that the statement is true, not defamatory or malicious falsehood. The Court of Appeal of Malaysia recognised the right of corporations to sue against malicious or injurious falsehood in Mak Khuin Weng v Melawangi Sdn Bhd.Although an artificial person or corporation may not have a viable cause of action in defamation, it may sue for malicious or injurious falsehood based on Section 6 of the Defamation Act 1957. The court further relied on the English case of Jameel and another v Wall Street JournalEurope SPRL where the court held that a company can bring an action in respect of words that damage its trading reputation.Consumer protection and dispute resolution in Malaysia is adequately regulated. Thus, it seems unnecessary for consumers to resort to social media and its legal risk of special damages.In Malaysia, a person could be liable for slander or malicious falsehood against a corporation pursuant to Section 6 of Defamation Act 1957. This provision (which is similar to Section 3 of the English Defamation 1952) could sustain an action against any online post either by email or on social media timeline slandering the property rights of a business or trade. Section 6 subsection 1 generally provides that “it shall not be necessary to allege or prove special damage in such circumstance”.In addition, the Malaysia Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) and Tribunal for Consumer Claims have an online complaint system for consumers.Similarly, the Tribunal for Consumer Claims Malaysia is also available to hear claims against products and services. The question remains why do netizens complain openly on social media despite the existence of the above mentioned institutions and the likelihood of legal risk? Consumers, therefore, are advised to avoid making defamatory complaints online. Netizens must learn to patronise appropriate consumer protection channels either online or offline.Perhaps lack of awareness on existing corporate complaint mechanisms and inadequate access to dispute resolution centres are two reasons which force a consumer to complain through social media. These can be remedied by providing online dispute resolutions with real-time response to consumers.Dr Sodoq Omoola is an assistant professor at the Ahmad Ibrahim Kuliyyah of Laws (AIKOL), International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM)

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