Why Google, Bing, Facebook, Twitter & Others Should Collaborate: A Proposition For An Online Reputation Issues Clearinghouse
Columnist Chris Silver Smith explains why collaboration among internet companies is key as online reputation attacks proliferate and the costs involved in fighting them surge.
For those with online reputation crises, the internet is a hostile and damaging place. When one is attacked online, it can negatively affect one’s ability to get a job, make new relationships or attract new customers. While individuals may fight defamation, it’s quite costly and requires cooperation of websites to remove the malicious content.
When search engines, social media companies and other sites receive defamation-removal requests and court orders, they sometimes resist aiding the victims, in large part due to the costs. But I have a proposition for these companies that could help reduce hassles and costs for everyone involved. Read on, and I’ll explain.
The Huge Scale Of The ORM Issue
As brief background, there’s no question that the scale of this issue is simply gargantuan. Millions of individuals and companies suffer because of the way lies and mischaracterizations can be so easily lobbed on the internet. Once out there, these negative items can frequently begin ranking in search for the subjects’ names, making malicious stuff all too prominent.
The adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is more of a wish than the reality in the internet age. Ask the victims of revenge porn whether they were harmed — or the victims of online reputation-attack extortion plots, or the many businesses that endure false complaints appearing in search from sites like Ripoff Report, ComplaintsBoard, Pissed Consumer and others.
BIA/Kelsey had forecast reputation management to be a larger than $5 billion industry by this year, and I suspect that this figure has been met and perhaps well-exceeded, if you factor in revenues of attorney firms that also have worked on such cases.
As yet another indicator, the search engines tend to complain about the scale of the numbers of takedown requests they process each year. Google alone has said it has processed more than 250,000 “right to be forgotten” removal requests so far this year in Europe, and that figure doesn’t include defamation removal requests there or in the US.
In conversations with Bing representatives, I’ve been told that they declined to process defamation removal requests (They’re not legally obligated to do so in the US.) more than a year and a half ago, due to it being too heavy of a cost.
The Cost Of Fighting Online Defamation
If you’ve never had your reputation attacked online, you might have a very limited and naive view of the costs of having it addressed. You might be aware that while we enjoy great latitude in terms of freedom of speech here in the US, one cannot spread damaging lies about another individual, company or organization willy-nilly without incurring liability.
The majority of us operate within these bounds, understanding that our society unravels and breaks down if people do not behave with honesty, fairness and reasonableness. If you are a person who avoids interpersonal conflict, you might also operate under the false notion that you won’t get attacked online, since everybody likes you.
But of course, not everyone is honest, reasonable, or even rational, so even some of the nicest and best people will get falsely painted as villains. (I find very commonly that people tend to assume that you must’ve done something “bad” to have others say “bad” stuff about you, but that’s definitely not the case!)
Here are just a few profiles of defamation cases I’ve worked on, as examples:
- An honest business attacked by an apparently unhinged ex-girlfriend of an employee — Many unfair and untrue things were posted about the business by an individual who had never done business with the company.
- A porn revenge victim — She did not send him any nude photos, but he apparently secretly took some and then attempted to extort her into continuing to have a relationship and have sex. Hundreds of sites had the images published to them, and also, there were postings of defamatory text.
- A well-liked and respected dentist attacked by would-be extortion artists from South America who demanded money in return for taking down and desisting in posting false reviews that damaged her business.
- An executive who had to lay off a number of contractors from his company, only to have one of them deploy thousands of postings claiming the executive was a pedophile, Nazi, mafia collaborator, embezzler and more.
- A small-town school board that was attacked by an individual who desired to ruin their reputations because of a unanimous decision that they fairly reached in conducting their official duties.
For these and other victims of online reputation attacks, those who choose to try to fight the untrue and damaging content quickly discover that search engines and most other sites will not help them without a court order of some sort. They may opt to hire an online reputation agency to try to push down and obscure the negative content, and/or they may opt to hire a legal firm to obtain the court order.
Attorneys who handle this type of thing can charge anywhere from $4,000 to $10,000, just to take the matter to court — and I believe that the better ones are at the upper end of the scale. That’s just the starting rate, however. Costs can rapidly ramp up if you need to hire investigators to locate anonymous attackers or if there are multiple people involved. The hours required to bring a court case can vary, as well, and may likely increase if the other side resists, and if the court reschedules dates, for example.
It takes time to bring a court case, as well, and victims may wish to hire online reputation management agencies to attempt to displace the negative contents in the meantime or to hedge their bets. In fact, in the more effective cases I’ve seen, attorneys and ORM specialists work collaboratively, since attorneys alone may not always have knowledge of the intricacies of internet technologies that may be involved.
But this can be just the tip of the iceberg. Once you have a court order in hand, then you would want your attorney or ORM specialist to submit the removal requests on your behalf to the appropriate sites — another time-consuming activity. You would also need them to monitor or conduct audits to see if additional bad stuff is getting deployed.
Finally, even when you think you’ve removed everything, this stuff tends to propagate on the internet. Many scraper sites, domain information sites and social media sharing apps can further distribute copies of the original stuff, so you may have to perform a few rounds of the steps in the process in order to get stuff taken down. And despite the fact that a page may be a clear copy of a page in your court order, some of these sites refuse to acknowledge that and will demand yet another court order to take down any URLs not specified in the original court order!
For a single page, you may have to submit a takedown request with multiple companies. One WordPress URL, for instance, might also get mentioned, along with defamatory text or pictures, on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Pinterest and in the search results at Google and Bing.
Most individuals and small businesses simply cannot afford to initiate such a project.
The Impact Of ORM Demands On Large Internet Companies
Search engines, social media companies and large blog platform sites all have staff that receive, consider and respond to defamation takedown requests. In some of the cases I’ve worked on, there are court order documents listing thousands of URLs. Each company these documents are submitted to may review the document to see if it’s valid, then tediously review each URL submitted to them in the removal request to see if it contains the defamatory content specified in the removal document.
If they determine that it has been a legally requested removal item, they may choose to remove just the specific item from the page where it appears or to remove the entire page. They may send a notification to the account owner. In the instance of accounts that may have broken their terms and conditions or those that are generally causing ongoing problems, they may choose to completely remove or suspend the account.
Once they’ve reviewed and chosen to act or not act upon a request, they’ll then respond back to the requester, perhaps identifying the URLs they took action upon and ones they did not. Sometimes you get pushback on takedown requests because they’ll mistakenly say something is removed or no longer there, when the defamatory material is still there.
In some cases, the content will have moved — such as when it’s displayed on the index page of a blog or within the pages of pagination listing posts — and these companies are not motivated to try to decipher this, resulting in rounds of requests. As they may take days to respond, content can move, getting pushed down and onto other pages as new content is added to the initial page. Infinitely scrolling pages can also add complexity to the mix, as can redirected URLs.
Undeniably, processing these sorts of takedown requests is highly costly for these companies, since they may have an entire department of employees who receive, consider and act upon the requests. Since these sites are forums where others post material, and since they’re not legally required to remove such stuff, one wonders why any of the sites choose to honor defamation removal requests.
I believe these businesses have chosen to do so for multiple reasons. For one thing, it may simply be easier to comply with takedown requests than to face potential lawsuits of people who essentially find no other recourse. If taken to court many times over for this sort of thing, there’s perhaps risk of eventually losing legal immunity.
I’ve written a previous piece on how I think search engines are indeed responsible for reputations based upon what they display, because in many cases, there are no other recourses for victims and because they helped create the entire medium where this often has greatest prominence.
The more cynical side of me has long suspected that these companies may assist in defamation cases, not due to legal responsibility, but out of their own self-interests. Simply put, if there’s no pressure release valve, there would be potential for there to eventually be a class action lawsuit or new legislation to force them to help.
It may also be that all of these sites are partly motivated by the horrific nature of the abuse that is out there. It’s just icky, and even corporations that attempt to be solely money-motivated may have employees internally who find a lot of the destructive reputation situations highly compelling — and if you will act upon some of these cases, you sort of need to act upon most of them in order to be consistent.
In recent weeks, both Google and Microsoft have chosen to now accept removal requests from porn revenge victims without requiring court orders. One doesn’t have to search very hard to find instances where reputation attacks have resulted in suicide or economic hardships on families.
Undeniably, all of these companies with popular Web services are absorbing extensive costs in reviewing and acting upon defamation takedown requests, though. While I’ve criticized some of them at times for not being sufficiently helpful in addressing individuals’ problems, or because I think they’re at times being facile in avoiding some of the automated methods that could reduce the impact on victims, I still acknowledge that this has an impact and a cost to the businesses. (Most of them make sufficient revenues that I’d argue that this is not an undue degree of cost, but it’s still something that reduces profits for stockholders.)
As the internet evolves, there’s also potential that this is an area for growing costs, too. Individual privacy rights are on the increase, and more of these cases grow each day as new generations go online.
A Simple Proposal To Improve ORM Handling For Victims And Internet Companies
The costs of handling this stuff are big for both the victims of online reputation attacks and the companies that assist in the cleanup. But no one seems to be trying to step back and look at the big picture to see if there are ways to reduce costs for everyone. So I have a proposal.
It seems faintly ridiculous to me that Google, Bing, Facebook, Twitter and other significant players all have departments that in many ways duplicate each other’s activities in reviewing takedown requests and review the very same court documents and URLs. So it appears to me that all of these companies have a shared need that they could and should collaborate on.
What if they all partnered to found a sort of “Online Reputation Issues Clearinghouse”? Instead of each of them maintaining departments of employees to receive, assess and handle these requests, what if they each donated money to a nonprofit clearinghouse that handled the requests on their behalf? In this way, they could potentially save money by merging their review work through this new entity and then allowing that organization to send them the URLs approved for removals.
From a reputation victim’s point of view, this might have considerable advantages, as well, because it should reduce many of the costs involved; the victim would have a one-stop source to go to for removing things from some of the most prominent sites and could send a single request versus multiple ones.
There’s just a tiny bit of precedent for this sort of thing, as well. The major search engines agreed to collaborate in the past on the Sitemaps protocol, enabling a webmaster to use a single format for bulk-submitting URLs for inclusion in search results. They also collaborated on Schema.org to jointly support a common protocol for structured data.
So perhaps this concept of combining for joint advantages and for the good of the community is not entirely alien.
I challenge these companies to evolve and to seriously consider how they could improve in order to better assist online reputation attack victims, rather than being resistant and adversarial to the fact that costs are involved. They need to look at a rational means for assisting with these cases and doing so in ways to mitigate the costs and impacts on the individuals and organizations that are falsely maligned.
Doing so will help nurture the lives of people, and it will undermine those who have essentially weaponized the internet for criminal and cruel motivations. Collaboration on a possible clearinghouse might be one way to really make a difference for all involved.
Interested in reading more on online reputation management? Check out my other articles on the topic:
- Are Search Engines Responsible For Reputation? Yes, Virginia, They Are. Big Time!
- 9 Key Points for Cleaning Up Your Online Reputation Nightmare Via SEO
- Trademark Policing: Ninja Techniques Of Online Reputation Management
- 10 Ideas: How To Fix A Damning Business Review
- How I Came To Work For A Killer: An Online Reputation Fable