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Google Defamation and Libel Removal Policy – Our View

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An alarming number of people are doing Google searches and finding their name or their business’ name being bashed. Here’s a random sample in which the business owner is being called a thief.  We have no idea whether there’s any basis for this claim or not, but it doesn’t matter. The statement shows up as number one on Google when their brand name is searched.

1Imagine for a moment that this has happened to you or your business. The first indication of trouble often comes from a client who comes in and says, “Hey, have you seen what they’re saying about you online?”. The frustration of this quickly becomes overwhelming, as the negative comments are usually posted anonymously. In our business, cyber-investigation service, we see this happen over and over again, and it is usually ex-employees or competitors that are to blame.

Whether you’ve already been victimized by this this type of attack or the problem is new to you, your first thought is that there must be a law against posting falsehoods on the Internet and that this should be easy to fix.  If you thought this you’re in for a painful surprise, because this issue isn’t quite as simple to fix as most people hope.

The first course of action most people take is to review the terms of service on Google. There they find a form to fill out; they complete it online and hope that the problem is solved but far too often their actions evoke absolutely no response.  Next people tend to log on to help forums or blogs where they spend an inordinate amount of time learning about how to address the situation. The outcome of their hard work is almost always the same: the harmful material is still out there and active, and people start to believe it.  Many people come out of this process with notably strong opinions about Google’s defamation policy, such as those voiced in the post below:

2As a company with a lot of experience dealing with defamation on Google, Bing and other search engines, we want to share some of the knowledge we’ve gained along the way. One thing that’s often misunderstood is how the certain laws impact the issue.  Please understand that we are not attorneys, so we’re giving you a layman’s view.

In our opinion one of the least understood laws in this area is Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, or as it’s more popularly known, the Communications Decency Act, Section 230. If you read the law it may seem like nothing but a bunch of legalese but it’s fairly simple to provide a layman’s interpretation of what it means and how it applies to victims of Internet defamation. The law differentiates between the actions of the third party that actually posts information and the host of the material, such as Google.  One explanation that often helps people understand is to think of the Google website as a big whiteboard in the sky on which people can anonymously write things. The outcome of the Communications Decency Act is that the person who writes on the whiteboard is legally responsible for what they write, but the whiteboard owner (for example, Google) is not required to police it.  This is why attempts to force Google to take material down, such as an attorney cease-and-desist letters, are so frequently ineffective.  Beyond that there are significant legal issues involved with organizations like Google taking some material down and not others; as a result they frequently adopt a policy of not removing anything unless a court order is presented.

To better understand how this works let’s consider a couple of examples. In the first scenario the damaging material is located on a Google product such as Gmail, Blogger, Google Places, etc.  In the second scenario the damaging material is located on a site other than a Google product that shows up in Google search results.

Referring to the Google legal troubleshooter link that’s provided by Google for troubleshooting issues we can walk through both situations and see what happens.  For example, a request for removal of damaging information on a blogspot blog that is owned by Google leads to the series of screenshots seen below. Ultimatel,y because of the Communications Decency Act, it will take a court order to get the misinformation removed.  We’ll cover the details of getting a court order in a separate post, but if you have a serious issue you may want to visit a regular defamation services page.

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Now let’s look at the second scenario, in which the defamatory material is placed on a non-Google website like Yelp. While the damaging content is not caused by Yelp, their website happens to be a place that a lot of people choose to try to harm businesses.  Following the same procedure as we did above we find that Google recommends trying to get removal of the material from the website owner. There are a lot of ways to do this but there will be times that you’re going to need professional help. What Google recommends is that if there is a mechanism by which you can get removal, make sure to get removal of everything from their search index.

If you’re a victim of this kind of defamatory comments on the Internet then what’s written above doesn’t really offer you any great solutions.  The reality is that this is a difficult problem to deal with, even for those of us who deal with them professionally on a daily basis.