Suppose somebody said something I didn’t like about me online. (That actually has happened a time or two, but I am a grown up, so it doesn’t bother me much.)
I could hire a reputation management company. Or I could sue the b@stard.
There is a sneakier, more effective method, according to Eugene Volokh. Someone could sue the a fake person, get a quick settlement — essentially conning a court into believing that the situation is settled. Then, the offended party delivers the court document to Google or an internet content company, which agrees to deindex or erase the criticism online.
It took me a few minutes to see how easy this is: The actual author of the comment, or review is unaware of the court case. Google and the court just assumes that the “I’m sorry, I give up” paper is legitimate. I didn’t get any closer the law school than the LSAT, so I don’t know a better word for that paper, but Volokh and Paul Alan Levy did and do:
- All the ostensible [made up] defendants ostensibly agreed to injunctions being issued against them, which often leads to a very quick court order (in some cases, less than a week).
- Of these 25-odd cases, 15 give the addresses of the defendants — but a private investigator (Giles Miller of Lynx Insights & Investigations) couldn’t find a single one of the ostensible defendants at the ostensible address.
Now, you might ask, what’s the point of suing a fake defendant (to the extent that some of these defendants are indeed fake)? How can anyone get any real money from a fake defendant? How can anyone order a fake defendant to obey a real injunction?
The answer is that Google and various other Internet platforms have a policy: They won’t take down material (or, in Google’s case, remove it from Google indexes) just because someone says it’s defamatory. Understandable — why would these companies want to adjudicate such factual disputes? But if they see a court order that declares that some material is defamatory, they tend to take down or deindex the material, relying on the court’s decision.
Since I happen to know people who have been the attempted victims of small-time brass knuckle reputation management, I suggest they make sure Google knows they have not agreed to an injunction.
Volokh has an update on this situation here. Just to review: There are few ways to be good, but there are thousands of ways to be a jackwagon online.