When a Google search turns up negative stories, Europeans can turn to a controversial "right to be forgotten" law. But in the United States, where no such law exists, Americans may try their luck with shifty "reputation management" companies that promise to scrub embarrassing Google (goog) results.
While such reputation "experts" have been around for years, one of them appears to have found a sneaky new way to purge Google results using court orders.
The scheme, discovered by law professors Eugene Volokh and Paul Levy, relies on filing libel lawsuits against fake defendants, and then telling Google there is a court order to remove the content in question.
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The strategy works because both the fake defendant and the person bringing the lawsuit (who in some cases is fake as well) agree to tell the court that a web page in question is indeed defamatory. As part of the arrangement, the two possibly imaginary parties agree to an injunction, which is then quickly blessed by a judge. A lawyer then sends the injunction to Google and voila, the unflattering search result is gone.
Volokh and Levy uncovered more than 25 such cases involving news stories or blog posts about topics like sexual assault or shady business practices. Although the names on the cases are different, the legal documents allegedly use much of the same language—suggesting the same lawyer or reputation management firm is behind it all.
In a couple of the cases, the "libel" in question came in the form of a bogus reader comment that was added to a story, and served as a pretext for a lawsuit. This tactic would force Google to delist an entire webpage, since it can't simply remove the comment alone from its search results.
Why Europe’s ‘Right to Be Forgotten’ Rule Means Trouble
So who's behind all this? Vokokh's reporting points to a man named Richart Ruddie, who is tied to companies with names like "SEO Profile Defense Network" and "Profile Defenders." The website of the latter promises to help manipulate search results to hide unfavorable items.
"Unfortunately in today's world, you are who Google says you are. What makes it even worse is you cannot stop anybody from Googleing your name BUT WE CAN CONTROL THE RESULTS THEY SEE," says the website.
If Ruddie is indeed behind the phony lawsuit dismissals, it could spell trouble not only from state bar associations, but for the clients who use his services. If word gets out about the fake lawsuits, the news articles the clients are trying to bury could get renewed attention—a phenomenon known as the "Streisand effect."
Profile Defenders did not respond to a question about the allegations in Volokh's article. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment about how it is responding to the suspicious court orders.
The fake lawsuit scheme is hardly the first time someone has tried unusual tactics to manage search ranking. In a 2013 profile on reputation management companies, New York magazine described how people pay tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for firms to use a variety of "black ops" techniques to hide unflattering Google results.