Google Apparently No Longer Humoring Court Orders To Delist Defamatory Content

from the 'it's-called-the-CDA,-and-you're-going-to-want-to-scroll-down-to-Sec dept

Chris Silver Smith, writing for Search Engine Land, notes that Google seems to have stopped responding to defamation lawsuit court orders.

A number of attorneys who specialize in online defamation/libel cases have reported to me that Google has recently suspended its longstanding, informal policy of removing URLs from US search results that are specified in duly executed court orders. This poses a major paradigm shift for many victims of online reputation attacks.

Beginning around August or September of this year, a number of attorneys from across the US began receiving blanket denials after submitting requests to remove defamatory content from Google’s search results.

That timing seems to coincide with Paul Alan Levy/Public Citizen’s intervention in a case where an order to delist traced back to a dentist unhappy with an online review. The eventual delisting by Google came as the result of a bogus lawsuit — filed with or without the knowledge of the dentist Mitul Patel — against a bogus defendant. The fake “Matthew Chan” signed a document agreeing to remove his review and the court ordered Google to take it down.

Another similarly-fake lawsuit followed soon after. Levy, working with Eugene Volokh, has managed to uncover the shady reputation management firm behind a stack of bogus libel lawsuits, all filed against nonexistent defendants.

Smith makes no mention of those efforts in his article questioning Google’s actions. He does, however, point to Pissed Consumer’s uncovering of the same tactics earlier in the year: bogus lawsuits designed from the ground up to obtain court orders for the delisting of URLs.

In the spring, Pissed Consumer reported that a number of suspicious lawsuits with purportedly bogus defendants were filed in California courts to obtain defamation court orders enabling URLs to get delisted by Google. In October, Pissed Consumer sued a reputation management company and attorneys that are alleged to be behind “sham lawsuits” and “stooge defendants” that were used to fool Google into removing undesirable consumer reviews.

Undoubtedly, Pissed Consumer’s work pushed Google to scrutinize defamation court orders more closely, but Levy’s findings likely tipped the scale. Smith feels these bogus lawsuits may have been a factor, but the legal documents he’s been forwarded by other attorneys don’t share the same “sloppiness” and “commonalities” of those Pissed Consumer uncovered.

This change in policy obviously poses problems for those who have obtained court orders for delisting.

For the attorneys and their clients who are now failing to procure intervention on the part of Google after they have gone through ofttimes-lengthy and costly litigation processes, the abrupt apparent change in policy and lack of explanation are upsetting and confusing.

Of course, the people to blame for this policy shift aren’t employed at Google. They work for — or run — sketchy reputation management services that overpromise and underdeliver. A few thought they’d found a loophole in the legal system. It has worked for some, but that little fraudulent joyride is now apparently over.

But Google never had to comply with these orders in the first place — even those obtained legitimately. Section 230 of the CDA says Google isn’t legally responsible for third-party postings, which would basically be everything the search engine indexes. If it has been compliant in the past, it has been going above and beyond what’s legally expected of it.

As legitimate lawyers are aware (or at least should be…), the proper target for a defamation lawsuit is the author of the libelous statements. Targeting service providers for third-party content is the wrong way to handle this.

Smith points out that the new Google status quo sucks for victims of defamation, who have often found the search engine to be a relief valve of sorts that allowed them to see unfavorable statements delisted without having to take on more antagonistic sites like Ripoff Report head-on. But while it’s true addressing online defamation can be expensive and fatiguing, Google’s willingness to allow plaintiffs to cut corners hasn’t done it any favors.

Plaintiffs represented by Smith’s colleagues aren’t the only ones who are going to be hurting.

If this new paradigm becomes status quo, the attorneys expert in these matters will likely halt assisting new clients, because there will be no way to reasonably predict positive outcomes, and risk of failure will be too high.

Once again, some of the blame for the current situation rests on those who have “predicted positive outcomes” based on using search engines as a proxy defendant. If attorneys (and reputation management firms) hadn’t gotten into the habit of sending orders to Google, rather than seeking out the online commenters behind the libelous statements, this decision wouldn’t be so difficult to take.

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Comments on “Google Apparently No Longer Humoring Court Orders To Delist Defamatory Content”

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That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

The monolith remaining silent about things… that never happens.
Just wait until the new algorithm tweak rolls out where submitting a delisting order raises the score of the item in question in search results.

One wonders if the monolith is gearing up to tell the **AA’s to stop burying them in crappy notices for content they don’t host.

DannyB (profile) says:

How about doing this also for DMCA notices

What if Google stopped responding to DMCA takedown requests as well?

After all, Google doesn’t host the content. It merely provides the link to it’s location. That location is the proper target of the DMCA takedown.

Maybe Google’s reaction is also triggered by the increasing talk about mere linking being somehow illegal. If you don’t like what is linked to, then take the linked site down and all of the links are instantly useless. Even the links you don’t know about, like other search engines or blog postings, or anywhere else.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: How about doing this also for DMCA notices

What if Google stopped responding to DMCA takedown requests as well?

If they did this with DMCA requests they’d lose their immunity and people could try to sue them. It is unclear whether they’d actually lose such lawsuits – but if they did lose, then at $150,000 per work infringed, they’d pretty much be bankrupted.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: How about doing this also for DMCA notices

What if Google stopped responding to DMCA takedown requests as well?

They’d get sued. And would almost certainly lose and lose big. DMCA notices are a different beast than defamation court orders. CDA 230 grants full immunity to service providers. DMCA 512 does not.

After all, Google doesn’t host the content. It merely provides the link to it’s location. That location is the proper target of the DMCA takedown.

Not according to the law. See 512(d): It does say if you’re an "information location tool" (which Google is) and you receive a notice of a link on your site to infringing material, you need to deal with it or risk losing safe harbors.

Maybe Google’s reaction is also triggered by the increasing talk about mere linking being somehow illegal. If you don’t like what is linked to, then take the linked site down and all of the links are instantly useless. Even the links you don’t know about, like other search engines or blog postings, or anywhere else.

Nah. It’s just following the rules of the law as currently stated.

GMacGuffin (profile) says:

... but ....

If attorneys (and reputation management firms) hadn’t gotten into the habit of sending orders to Google, rather than seeking out the online commenters behind the libelous statements, this decision wouldn’t be so difficult to take.

No nonfraudulent defamation lawsuit is going to result in a legitimate Order/Ruling on defamation unless the attorney did seek out the online commenters. One needs to serve a party with a lawsuit to obtain a judgment (default or otherwise), and if the defendant can’t be located, the attorney has to show efforts to do so before service by publication or similar means is allowed. So it’s a real problem for any nonfraudulent lawsuits, as counsel can’t just go an get an Order and send it to Google as the above implies. One has to go after the defaming party, and get a judgment against them first.

Anonymous Coward says:

>So it’s a real problem for any nonfraudulent lawsuits, as counsel can’t just go an get an Order and send it to Google as the above implies. One has to go after the defaming party, and get a judgment against them first.

Those procedural rules are SO invasive! Tracking down the really guilty party is just so … INCONVENIENT! It should be good enough to accuse someone who’s rich enough to afford a flagrantly unjust accusation.

After all, society exists for the convenience of lawyers, right?

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Chris, the problem with asking Google to delist one URL is that, if other people are sharing the link or talking about the case — or if the attempt to pull the link down gets the defamer’s attention — you may well find that the Streisand Effect takes over and the poor jerk trying to clean the mud off their good name gets even more slopped all over it in the search results.

It really is better to either go to the source and deal with it there, or, failing that, post a counter-notice (which I did) on the site on which the defamatory content is found, or try to bury it with other more complimentary content, or just move on and accept that the crap will always be there. Despite that troll’s best efforts I’m still gainfully employed with the same employer and my good name appears to be that of a rather opinionated woman who fell foul of a reputation-wrecking troll but didn’t give in to his attempts to censor me.

If anyone here believes anything bad about me, I doubt that it’s about me being involved in an extortion racket. It actually tends to be more about not being on the “correct” political team because I won’t take sides.

Matthew Chan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: You make good points

I think people instinctively want negative content taken down but it is not always possible. More people should directly engage and address the negative comment head on with a a strong explanation and rebuttal. Intelligent people will generally understand there will be some negative comments and how one handles it speaks to ones confidence and ability to cope with criticisms or lies.

The days of having a pristine, spotless online reputation is over for anyone who has been around long enough. Someone is going to hate or dislike you and say some negative or disparaging things. I am NOT anti-takedown or anti-removals but those who DEPEND on that to survive will ultimately not do well in the current legal environment.

I also believe that trying to bury negative content has limited success. It is difficult to hide everything. Sometimes, it is just better to directly deal and respond to it. Other times, you just have to let it go and ignore it.

Chris Silver Smith (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Sure, it’s certainly possible for the removal activities to result in yet more content getting spawned. I’ve certainly worked on cases where this happened, and where we took further action on the newly-emerged stuff.

Yes, I agree it’s great when you can identify the individual and stop them, or eliminate at the source. As I described, there’s many situations where this can’t be done.

You’re very fortunate if a classic public affairs approach of issuing rebuttal statements will solve your problems or mitigate them sufficiently. But, ask yourself if you’d still feel qualms about going out with a guy that someone has accused of being a rapist? Or, if you’d simply elect to do business with a company with no black marks showing up, as opposed to one that has a dozen comments claiming they’re a scam? The equation in those cases can be very different — merely posting a counter statement may not solve the loss of business and impacts to personal relationships. Also, on some of these sites, adding yet another comment to a page, such as in the case of a false and defamatory Ripoff Report page, will result in giving the page itself yet more ranking ability as Google will see it as having yet more interest and fresher content — aspects of the ranking algorithms are such that interacting further with the page will give it yet more power. For those of us working in online reputations, the calculation of how to address something can include an assessment of whether rebutting may feed attention to a bully or harasser — resulting in yet more activity from them.

So, in some cases your approach may work sufficiently. But in a great many extreme cases it simply would not work.

Matthew Chan (profile) says:

I Notified Search Engine Land early on but they Ignored Story

Search Engine Land is either out-of-touch or intentionally avoiding the notifications I sent them regarding the story Paul Alan Levy had initially written regarding the bogus Patel vs. Chan Baltimore lawsuit. I initially thought that the story was right up the alley for Search Engine Land and I submitted the URL to Paul Alan Levy’s initial articles in late August. But it seems to me they ignored it and thought the story by Paul Alan Levy was not significant.

Not one person at Search Engine Land responded or picked up the story. And as Tim Cushing correctly has pointed out, the entire lack of mention of the numerous articles by Paul Alan Levy, Eugene Volokh, and Techdirt over the fake defendant cases with Profile Defenders seems peculiar. Is it because Richart Ruddie was once involved with the Search Engine Land business events? Or was this something they really did not want to get out to their readership? I find Search Engine Land and some of their reporting to be suspect and self-serving.

“They” (Chris Silver Smith and/or Search Engine Land) seem connected to this group of unnamed lawyers who found ways to take advantage of the Google takedown policy. I find it peculiar that they didn’t name or quote any lawyer on this matter. It would seem that some lawyer would be willing to make a public comment or statement on this but they didn’t.

To be fair, I have no reason to believe that the writer, Chris Silver Smith, was privy to email notifications sent to the Search Engine Land website. Nevertheless, it seems to me this writer is not as informed as he should be given the fact that so many other bloggers have picked up or made mention of the Paul Alan Levy/Eugene Volokh stories.

Chris Silver Smith (profile) says:

Re: I Notified Search Engine Land early on but they Ignored Story

No, I was unaware of any story tips submitted previously to Search Engine Land. I am not a staff writer for them – I am independent, self-employed.

To be clear, I am not a professional journalist – else I would not have included various opinions I have in the article. I do endeavor to always provide factual and accurate information, and I attempted to speculate on Google’s reasoning, even though they did not provide me an official comment. Believe it or not, I had not read the Volokh/Levy stories prior to writing the article – however, they seem to further point out various instances of abuses of the legal process involving alleged or potential fake defendants, so I don’t think they necessarily would have changed the substance of what I wrote — I was already operating under the belief that there were abuses beyond the few I mentioned. (I read articles involving the Pissed Consumer claims in prepping for the article, and when conducting searches I had also seen at least one link to the Volokh/Levy articles, and I’d incorrectly assumed they did not contain more than the same facts/cases reported elsewhere about Pissed Consumer. I think they are very interesting, and provide more context for Google’s apparent policy change.)

As for any snubbing of you on the part of Search Engine Land, I don’t think there was any intention whatsoever of that. While I do not speak for them, I know that they receive numerous tips and suggestions all the time, and they cannot use them all. They would be focused primarily upon newsworthiness and interest of their audience — I’m not sure the Washington Post articles necessarily were overt in the search engine tie-ins, nor the scale of what is happening now at the Google end of the equation. Without the information that I added, there likely was not a lot of indication that Google had changed anything, and they are not a legal news oriented site. Regardless of why they opted not to report on the takedown cases earlier, I know that it has nothing to do with snubbing you, nor trying to protect any defendant involved with the dubious cases outlined. I’ve had a relationship with the site and its personnel since before it was first launched, and they sometimes pass on story suggestions and news tips I send them, too! So, I don’t believe you should take that personally.

You also should not find it peculiar that I did not list the names of any of my sources in this article. While not a pro, I do exercise discretion in protecting my sources, and there was consideration that involvement with such an article could be irritating to personnel within Google. For the moment, I felt it would be best not to disclose the individuals, since it’s always possible that this could negatively impact the work they do on behalf of their clients. Some of the attorneys I interviewed would have been willing to be named. I made an effort to poll a number of attorneys involved in defamation takedown requests from across the country, and I went forward with the story once I determined there was a significantly consistent pattern.

Matthew Chan (profile) says:

Re: Re: I Notified Search Engine Land early on but they Ignored Story

Hello Chris,

Thanks for your thoughtful response and feedback. I appreciate it very much and read it in the good spirit your response was intended. Allow me to return the favor and elaborate on my comments. I think I did read that you might be a guest writer (not a staff writer) for SEL and hence, you would probably not receive any story leads from SEL. And even if you did, I understand you are not obligated to act upon them. I have no issues with that.

I also accept you at your word that you did not read any of the Levy/Volokh articles. My point was that the “fake defendant to remove Yelp review” story has been around since the end of August 2016. For many of us following this, it is now an older story that just gets periodic updates as Techdirt has done but perhaps it is “new” to SEL.

For the record, I do not feel personally snubbed by anyone. I actually have a great deal of respect for SEL as I am a frequent reader. I am a relatively unknown individual and I have no illusions about that. I simply think that it seems strange that no search engine blog (that I know of) has picked up on the Levy/Volokh stories given the clear emphasis that an elaborate and deceptive lawsuit scheme to clean up Yelp reviews and to ultimately scrub Google entries. The simple explanation might simply be that the SE corner of the Internet did not see what was being written in the 1A corner of the Internet.

But honestly, I thought the SE industry would have great interest and caught wind of these stories earlier. Certainly, Techdirt has been covering related stories (PissedConsumer, for example) even prior to the Baltimore Patel case. I acknowledge that the Internet is a HUGE place and it is impossible to know everything that is being written in a different corner of the Internet. Having said that, there simply are a good number of non-SE blogs/websites who did pick up the story the last few months such as shown here:

That is not opinion, that is a fact. And if the SE industry blogs/sites have picked up on the story, then I haven’t found any recently.

Regarding how or what you write, I occasionally write my own pieces and I understand that every writer gets to choose what sources or information they want to incorporate. You are certainly not obligated to write anything to please or accommodate anyone except perhaps the publication (SEL) that publishes your piece. I accept that. I chimed in to comment because Tim Cushing made reference to your article and noted the interesting/coincidental timing of the Baltimore Patel case (which later led to other case and the discovery of the Richart Ruddie/Profile Defender connection) to the sudden slowdown of Google responsiveness to removing entries from their search entries. That caught my eye.

Regarding naming or quoting your experts, I understand the idea of protecting your sources and I have no problems with that if that is what you think you are doing. I accept you at your word and your explanation (not that you ever owed me one to begin with) now that you offered it. However, whether you realize it or not, there is an undercurrent of distrust in some aspects of the “search engine removal/takedown industry”. In my view, there are some “not so elegant” practices in the SE industry and some seem to make a point of excessively staying under the radar. But to be fair, the same can be said for most industries. You can thank many of the “reputation experts” for coloring my views.

And just to let you know, I am not anti-takedown or anti-removal but I think people need to be honest that there is a good bit of questionable takedowns occurring which I speculate is why Google is not just accepting all court orders at face value.

Thank you again for your excellent response. I look forward to reading more of your work.

Danny Sullivan (user link) says:

Re: I Notified Search Engine Land early on but they Ignored Story

I’m on vacation this week, but I’ve grabbed a moment to check on this.

I don’t see that we ever received any tip from “Matthew Chan” when I search by that name, nor by your domain. I don’t see any if I search for “Paul Alan Levy” (who I know and have worked with before) nor “Eugene Volokh.”

The only references I pull up for those names was a situation involving Yelp that we covered.

My guess is that perhaps you submitted to some other publication but not ours.

Richart Ruddie was never involved with our business event, as you’ve stated. No one by that name has worked for us full-time, part-time nor even freelance for us.

As for the idea we didn’t want this to somehow get out to our readership, that’s an odd thing to say given we just published a story by it. If our goal was to somehow keep this out, we’d never have run what Chris wrote.

In summary: no tips from you were received; you say someone was involved with our company who wasn’t, and you accuse us of trying to quash a story in a discussion about that exact story that we ran.

Danny Sullivan (user link) says:

Re: Re: I Notified Search Engine Land early on but they Ignored Story

OK, correction on the first part. Our editor in chief Matt McGee did locate the tip from August. Not sure why it didn’t turn up in my search.

Also, none of us are sure why we didn’t do something with it. We get a lot of tips. Sometimes things are missed. It wasn’t ignored because of any lack of interest in this type of situation. This type of story is actually something we’d generally like to cover — and we’ve covered similar things in the past.

Matthew Chan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Thank you for rechecking


Let me say that I think you are an honorable man and I am happy to have “met” you here. I say this because many people would not have said what you said. You went back to relook at the matter and that is a testament to your character. In my eyes, that speaks very highly of you.

I knew I provided a lead to SEL because it was my FIRST preference out of your competitors. I thought the story was VERY important to get out, in particular, for your audience to know about. I rarely submit leads to anyone.

I am glad to hear you are/would have been interested in the story. SEL appears to have numerous contacts in the pulldown menu and I really wasn’t sure WHO was the best person to direct it towards. And I didn’t remember whom I chose either. But I am glad you found my submission.

Anyhow, I hope things are cleared up now. Thank you, again.

Matthew Chan (profile) says:

Re: Re: I Notified Search Engine Land early on but they Ignored Story

Hello Danny,

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my comments. I appreciate it very much.

First, let me say that I am an occasional reader of SEL. As an outsider, I respect the publication but do find it skewed sometimes. But let me also add, that nearly all blogs are skewed or biased towards a certain direction including my own.

Second, it appears I did make a mistake regarding Richart Ruddie and the SEL business event connection. I googled again and it appears to be a SEJ (Search Engine Journal) event, NOT SEL (Search Engine Land) event. I apologize for that misquote. It was an unintentional careless error on my part.

Third, I did contact SEL regarding the Baltimore Patel story very early on. But you may be correct that at that time, I was initially referencing Yelp. I have gone back to the SEL Contacts list to see if I recognize who I might have contacted. I distinctly remember the pulldown menu. But I do not remember exactly which option(s) I used.

Fourth, I did contact a few SE blogs/journals over the Baltimore Patel case / Yelp matter early on and NONE including SEL seemed interested, which is their right. I did my part to provide what I thought was a relevant lead. The Techdirt article linked to the SEL article and that is when I commented I notified SEL early on. If Techdirt had linked to SEJ (not SEL), for example, I would have likely written a similar title.

Fifth, I did not accuse anyone of “quashing” a story. My title said SEL “ignored” the story which is NOT the same as quashing a story. Many blogs “ignore” story leads because they don’t deem it important or appropriate. I get that and don’t take it personally. Perhaps, my lead was insufficient or inadequate and that is fine. I didn’t feel the obligation to paint a complete picture or write a summary story for anyone. I simply provided a lead. My remark of “out-of-touch OR intentionally avoiding the notifications” is not me accusing anyone of “quashing” a story.

My reference to “the story” is the reference to the Baltimore Patel case (the early issue which evolved into Richart Ruddie/Profile Defenders and numerous other threads of discussion) because, in my view, it clearly pointed to an illicit court order for the purpose of taking down my review / scrubbing search engine entries. I probably didn’t get into all this detail to connect all the dots but I did provide a lead which would have provided more details if it was followed-up upon.

Let me say I understand your strong tone to my public comment. It was not meant as any personal attack on anyone. It was a broad statement of general distrust I have of some aspects of the industry you report on and part of. As I said earlier, if SEJ (not SEL) was linked, it would be THEM I would be referring to. Does that make sense?

Again, let me apologize for that one careless error. I also hope that you will take into consideration my other points which I stand by. Thank you for the dialog.

Paul Alan Levy (profile) says:

The author's self-interest

What struck me on reading the Search Engine Land article is that the author’s perspective might well be influenced by the apparent fact that the author is involved in obtaining delisting for clients. He never says this directly, but I noted this passing mentioned near the end of the article, “Those of us who work on these sorts of cases are aware that everyone is vulnerable to significant damage from misrepresentation.”

Now, there is nothing wrong with interesting parties blogging on policy issues, but a somewhat more forthright disclaimer, in the normal place for such disclaimers, might have been better.

I note the back and forth between Matthew Chan and the author of the article, and a rejoinder from Danny Sullivan. I am glad that this issue is now getting thwe attention that it deserves, and I am not concerned about whether credit is being given to me for writing (or litigating) on the subject,

I have been pretty much out of pocket for the past three weeks, on vacation with my family in Southeast Asia (getting to lots of my bucket list!) and with limited Internet access for substantial periods. I hope to write about these issues soon after getting back to DC in a couple of days.

Chris Silver Smith (profile) says:

The author's self-interest: no big secret

Hi, Paul – I’m not sure why you thought my self interest might be nonobvious or necessarily salient, but there’s no big conspiracy going on – did you miss my bio blurb at the end of the article? Just one click away reveals that I work in online reputation matters and on legal cases — or, the list of my articles further shows my work and opinions and professional interest, for that matter. It seems odd for you to focus upon, because it seems no more hidden than how you apparently work in nonprofit advocacy and/or litigation on free speech issues that may be related to these topics, which can be inferred by clicking through on some of your Washington Post pieces to your bio info.

You seem to be implying that my work is somehow suspect or less objective than your own, although I wasn’t pretending to be objective (if there was any question from what I wrote). I’d respectfully point out that your articles on this were also not necessarily objective – there wasn’t a survey of all defamation removals, for instance, to provide a more rounded picture of how many valid cases there may have been with properly-executed court proceedings, versus the questionable cases.

I’m unhappy about the abuses and frauds that may have been perpetrated through the legal process, too, because it seems to have poisoned the waters for everyone, good and bad alike.

As for self-interest, yes, just as I stated openly in the article, I do work in online reputation matters professionally, although more often on the search engine optimization side. However, I’ve also worked a number of times pro bono on behalf of victims of online reputation attacks including porn revenge and even human trafficking fueled by extortion based on threat of online postings. So, I’m very much influenced by the collateral damage I have seen in these cases, and it’s not propelled by just a matter of personal gain. From a purely self-interest standpoint, Google’s change would be advantageous to me, since reputation management firms like mine stand to profit more if legal recourse shrinks or is eliminated — so, perhaps I should’ve just kept quiet about the whole thing!

I hope your public advocacy extends beyond only the concerns for the freedom of speech rights of the megacorporation search engines, and beyond the public interest in having access to valuable information. Victims of unfair, untrue defamatory attacks are likewise worthy of representation.

I can appreciate that you may be skeptical or less trustful of those who do not work for a nonprofit as you apparently do, but your comment here in regards to me seems to flirt just a bit with the ad hominem.

All the same, no big secret, and my background and interest in these matters is at least as transparent as your own.

I look forward to reading more of your upcoming articles on these issues.

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