More Shady Libel Lawsuits Resulting In Dubious Delisting Court Orders Uncovered
from the self-serve-RTBF dept
Now that Eugene Volokh of the Volokh Conspiracy has dipped into bogus lawsuits and DMCA notices targeting supposedly-libelous reviews and comments, he’s apparently stepped up his detective work. Volokh and Paul Alan Levy of Public Citizen managed to expose the person behind a series of bogus lawsuits aimed at cleaning up clients’ search engine reputations. (Pissed Consumer has also uncovered some of the same tactics.)
Volokh has uncovered more questionable lawsuits, which have led to more questionable court orders being sent to Google to delist content. As Volokh points out, these lawsuits may be slightly more legitimate, but they still bypass a great deal of the adversarial process.
Here’s another twist, which some people have used to try to deindex mainstream news articles (though without any success, to my knowledge, because Google seems skeptical of these particular requests) — they (a) sue the people quoted in the articles, (b) get stipulations from the people recanting their allegations, (c) get court orders based on those recantations and then (d) try to use those court orders to deindex an entire article.
Even if it’s granted that the stipulations are genuine (a possibility, but not a probability), there’s still the problem of who’s being cut out of the loop. While it’s true the correct target for a libel lawsuit is the person making the defamatory statements, filing lawsuits in such a way that the publications themselves remain unaware of the legal proceedings can harm these new entities indirectly. When content starts vanishing from Google, news sources are left with unlisted stories based on questionable assertions. Their integrity suffers damage when they’re not made aware a story’s source may have lied to them.
When a plaintiff sues the source, though, gets a stipulation and submits the order to Google with a deindexing request, the plaintiff is trying to short-circuit the news organization’s review of the matter. Instead, the plaintiff wants to just get the original story hidden, with no independent evaluation of whether the story was and continues to be correct.
There’s no review option and the continued publication of the story could possibly see the new organization facing a defamation lawsuit of its own. (Probably not a successful one, but one it would still be compelled to defend itself against.) Not only that, but individuals may be more susceptible to legal bullying than new agencies. This is perhaps what these plaintiffs are counting on.
Volokh covers two different cases following the same M.O. in his post. Both plaintiffs managed to obtain a stipulation from the alleged defamers and obtained court orders to delist content, despite there never being an examination as to whether the statements were truly actionable. To its credit, Google has refused to delist content based on court orders obtained this way, most likely due to the recent increase in bogus libel lawsuit activity.
As I mentioned, fortunately today Google (and other search engines to which these orders are submitted) can decline to implement such deindexing requests, taking the view that a stipulated judgment based on a source’s recanting (under legal pressure) is no reason to vanish a news story that relied on the source.
Unfortunately, Google’s “opt out” may not last for long. As Volokh points out, the California Supreme Court is currently reviewing a case that could, if the lower court’s decision is upheld, force Google to comply with these orders, whether or not they were obtained legitimately.