If There's A Defamatory Review On Yelp, Is It Google's Job To Hide It?
from the always-a-way dept
One point that we keep trying to make in the various debates about content moderation and Section 230 in particular is that the second you give people a legal method through which they can seek to remove unflattering information from the internet, they will use it… and abuse it. We’ve seen it for decades with the DMCA, certainly, which is regularly abused to try to remove unflattering information even if it has nothing whatsoever to do with copyright. We’ve also seen it in the context of fake defamation lawsuits.
Of course, it also opens up some other scenarios as well, which Yelp recently discovered when Google alerted the company that one of its pages, about an auction house in Knoxville, Tennessee, was going to be delisted from Google’s index. Why? Well, according to the takedown letter that was sent to Google, by Wray Williams, the owner of the auction house, the statements on the website were found to be defamatory.
The Permanent Injunction that is attached covers the defamatory remarks which include all of the content that was posted by defendant, Kim Babel, on multiple Websites. The last 2 paragraphs of page 2 of the Injunction cover removing postings and Kim Babel being prohibited from further postings or republishing the defamatory statements.
And, indeed, the takedown letter includes an injunction issued by the court, back in 2012. The injunction applies to the person who allegedly posted the content (apparently Kim Babel), saying that she is enjoined from reposting the content to RipoffReport. There is then a handwritten addition saying “or any other online forum” though it’s not entirely clear who wrote that.
It might be the judge. I’m no handwriting expert, but the handwriting does look maybe similar to the judge’s handwriting entering the date at the end.
So, if we accept that a jury found the defendant to have defamed the company, you can understand how there’s an interesting conundrum here. Contrary to what the anti-Section 230 crowd insist, most websites, including Google, do take it seriously when there are court orders regarding defamatory content, and they do seek to deal with it. And yet… there have to be some questions raised about this result. First of all, the injunction is against the woman who was found by the court to have posted the reviews. It talks about RipoffReport, but not Yelp (though there is the hand-scrawled message on the injunction).
But, as it stands, anyone searching for this auction house on Google, will not be shown the Yelp page (which has two reviews, both of them just one star). To Wray Williams credit, he responds to both of the reviews, though with the second one he does so to point out that the review was ruled to be defamatory. If you search for the same business on YouTube, you see that Google Review has 30 reviews with an average rating of 4.8 out of 5 stars. Google will also show you reviews from Facebook, which are also all positive.
So, in the end, I’m not sure what’s the best result here. If the content is truly defamatory, then it seems reasonable to ask for it to be taken down. But it seems that the auction house should have sent the request to Yelp, rather than to Google. Yelp might then be in a position to review the court ruling and determine whether or not it wanted to pull down the review — which it very well might. And, in that scenario, then people searching on Google would still also be able to see the Yelp reviews.
It does seem at least marginally curious that there are so few Yelp reviews, and so many Google reviews. In my experience the reverse is often true, though perhaps that’s changing. Perhaps if the auction house hadn’t nuked the entire page from Google there would actually be more Yelp reviews for the auction house (and perhaps those would have been more positive).
The larger issue, to me, once again is what is the remedy for the situation. And when we’re dealing with content on other sites (such as Yelp), it seems dangerous to put that issue on Google to decide. I understand the basic thinking behind it — given how much traffic Google drives. But also, it seems worrisome that Google’s only response is a sledge hammer approach that removes all access to that page. Perhaps it “feels” right in this scenario in which there are just those two negative reviews, and one has been adjudicated as defamatory — but what if there were a bunch of reviews, and the vast majority of them were legit (good or bad)? The fact that this results in Google just removing the entire page from its index, feels like going too far.