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.

Filed Under: bogus lawsuits, cda 230, defamation, delisting, reputation management, search engine optimization, section 230
Companies: google

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  1. icon
    Chris Silver Smith (profile), 5 Jan 2017 @ 7:45pm

    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.

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