Mediabridge Products, a seller of computer and device accessories, had a bad week. Well, that might be an understatement. Last Tuesday, an Amazon customer identified as “TD” revealed via reddit that he had received two letters from Mediabridge’s attorney (the original copies of the letters have since been taken down, but we will quote relevant portions below). In essence, Mediabridge was unhappy with a review that TD left for one of the company’s wireless routers on Amazon, and it demanded that he remove the review or face a potential lawsuit.
At issue were two claims that TD made in his review: that Mediabridge had paid people to leave positive reviews of the product on Amazon, and that the company’s $50 router was really just a rebranded $20 router from China:
I’m here to warn you: A lot of these reviews are fake…It’s very likely that they are paying for reviews. It’s unethical, but think about it: They only sell these routers on Amazon, so the whole success of their company depends on Amazon reviews…
If you are wondering why this product looks identical to another $20 router sold at Amazon by a company called Tenda, that’s because it is the same router, just rebranded with a different color…
Mediabridge strongly denied both claims and, acting via its attorney, sought to persuade TD to remove his review on the grounds that it was defamatory. Under U.S. law, defamation concerns false statements that harm the reputation of an individual or organization, and provides a civil remedy for a plaintiff to receive compensation from the defendant who made such statements. In the case of Mediabridge and TD, the alleged defamation is specifically categorized as libel, as TD’s statements were made in written form.
While defamation laws can vary by jurisdiction, in general, a plaintiff seeking to prevail on a defamation claim must prove that the defendant’s statement was (1) false, (2) injurious, and (3) unprivileged. In coverage of this story at other websites and on message boards, many have also suggested that Mediabridge would have to show that TD knew his statements were false in order to prove libel, but that’s not necessarily true when dealing with private individuals or entities. It’s only when defamation concerns public officials or public figures that the higher standard of “actual malice” must be shown (see the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision New York Times Co. v. Sullivan for more), and it’s not clear how a court would label Mediabridge in this situation.
We spoke with a company spokesperson who asked to remain anonymous for now due to the barrage of offensive communication Mediabridge and its employees continue to receive. For the purposes of this article, the spokesperson will be identified as Mr. Smith.
In a telephone conversation this weekend, we asked Mr. Smith about his company’s interpretation of libel and rationale for instructing the company’s lawyer to contact TD. To narrow the elements down, we’ll state right off the bat that TD’s statements were unprivileged; “unprivileged” statements are those that fall outside of the narrow circumstances in which the law has recognized that a person’s statements, even if otherwise libelous, are more important than the protection of a plaintiff’s rights. Examples of “privileged” statements include witnesses testifying in court or during depositions, and lawmakers acting in an official capacity.
The Truth and Nothing But…
As for the statements’ veracity, Mr. Smith tells us that both are unequivocally false, although he readily admits that his firm was less concerned with the claim that the router was a rebranded version of a cheaper product from a Chinese company called Tenda than with the accusations that his company paid for favorable reviews.
To briefly address the rebrand claim, Mr. Smith told us that the router at issue (MWN-WAPR300N) is not a rebranded Tenda product: “They’re just not the same,” he said without further explanation. An FCC document has surfaced that links one of the company’s Medialink routers to Tenda, but that document references the MWN-WAPR150N, the predecessor to the WAPR300N. There is no official documentation that we have been able to locate that definitively links the WAPR300N to Tenda. (Update: as pointed out in the comments, there is also a review of the Mediabridge router at SmallNetBuilder which claims to have linked the router’s FCC ID to that of the equivalent Tenda router, but the review does not provide references. We’ve reached out to them for clarification).
Update 2: A representative from SmallNetBuilder informed us that the Medialink MWN-WAPR300N router has an FCC ID of V7TW368R, which references the Tenda W368R. We asked Mr. Smith about this and he explained that the routers are electrically identical, which is what the FCC is primarily concerned with.
However, “being electrically identical does not make them identical,” he told us, explaining that Mediabridge made significant changes to the router’s software and hardware before sending it to market. As a relatively small company, Mediabridge doesn’t have the resources to design and manufacture every product it sells. The company therefore sometimes “takes commodity products and makes them better,” which is what has caused the confusion with the Tenda router.
From a software perspective, Mr. Smith tells us that the WAPR300N has better security features, better port forwarding configuration options, and a much better range extender option, among other improvements. Hardware-wise, Mediabridge has improved the DRAM and flash over the Tenda router, which allows it to better handle the more complex software.
In short, Mr. Smith explains, to “anybody who actually bought and used both products, it would be obvious that [the Mediabridge WAPR300N and Tenda W368R] are not the same.”
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