Is Ripoff Report subverting Google take-downs?
Previously de-indexed Ripoff Report pages are reappearing and ranking prominently again in Google. Columnist Chris Silver Smith takes a close look at how the site is eluding Google’s page removal processes and how defamation victims — and Google — can fight back.
Anyone familiar with online reputation issues is surely aware of Ripoff Report, a site long considered one of the most destructive on the web when it comes to people’s and companies’ reputations.
Ripoff Report has a well-established practice of refusing any and all demands to remove defamatory materials from its website. Now it’s going even further, moving content around to different URLs after Google has removed the originals from its index to comply with a court order. The result: the content, though declared defamatory in a court of law, could still be accessible through Google.
The business model
As I have outlined previously in articles about online defamation, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act immunizes some types of websites from responsibility/liability for content posted on them by third parties. Essentially, “distributors” of content provided by others cannot be compelled to remove such content, except when copyright infringement is involved.
Ripoff Report, and a number of other websites, have created a niche industry based on the Section 230 protection. Such sites invite people to anonymously post reviews and comments. In practice, Ripoff Report and other similar sites almost universally elicit only negative “reviews,” and simply being mentioned on these types of sites automatically confers some reputation damage because of the website’s name. It’s not named “Independent Reports” or “Consumer Reports” or anything neutral — thus, everyone listed therein must be a “Ripoff.”
I’ve mentioned that Ripoff Report will not remove content, but you can pay large fees for “VIP Arbitration” services where they might remove mentions of you, de-optimize your page so it does not rank prominently in search results, and/or post editorial commentary indicating the things written about you might not be accurate.
Since they will not remove it if someone defames you on their site, one would think that the most effective recourse would be to obtain a court order that identifies the pages as being defamatory, and then petition Google to remove the Ripoff Report page from their search results. (Google recently seemed to suspend removals of defamatory content for a period, but they have been resuming some removals once more.)
For years now, a number of defamation victims have gotten relief through Google’s voluntary removal process, after they obtained properly executed court orders specifying defamatory URLs. Both businesses and individuals that have been severely damaged by malicious and dishonest things written about them on Ripoff Report have been able to make such content virtually disappear by asking Google to de-index the pages from their search results.
I don’t have access to statistics, but from the samples of court orders I have seen in the past handful of years, Ripoff Report pages de-indexed through Google’s take-down process could easily number in the thousands.