27 September 2023

A hidden war is being waged over what we see in our search results

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There’s a hidden fight going on to change what we see when we search online. Ariel Bogle and Michael Workman* explain why the battle over online reputation management is ramping up.

When Australians search online, to choose a restaurant or screen a new doctor, they might expect Google results to provide a complete record of all the information that’s out there.

But there’s a hidden fight going on to change what we see.

In fact, there’s a whole industry that will help scrub your worst moments from the internet — for a fee.

In an era where anonymous and malicious criticism or harassment posted online can sink a business, that may be a good thing.

But an ABC investigation has found that some individuals and companies are trying to have information arguably in the public interest removed from Google search results, a process known as de-indexing, often by making claims of defamation that have not been tested in Australian courts.

Some of the content individuals and businesses have attempted to have de-indexed include ASIC notices and hundreds of stories from news outlets including The Sydney Morning Herald, 9Now and The Daily Telegraph.

Using data collected by Harvard University’s Lumen database, which monitors take-down notices sent to companies like Google, the ABC found that Australian requests linked to defamation rose to a peak of at least 1,826 in 2020.

There have been almost 400 in 2022 so far.

It is difficult to know how many allegedly defamatory links or reviews targeted for removal were successfully deleted or de-indexed from search results as Lumen does not always record a result.

Google’s transparency report shares data only about copyright delistings and take-down requests by government or court order: In July to December 2021, for example, it says 185 items were requested under the latter category specifically for removal from Google Search.

Of all requests received in that period, 7 per cent related to defamation — the second largest category after bullying or harassment (74 per cent).

But these results don’t include requests made by individuals or other entities.

That means we know little about how our search results may be changing — or about how the reputation management industry that helps people make these requests even works.

The ‘age of the keyboard warrior’

According to Lumen data, by far the most common type of content targeted for take-downs in Australia linked to claims of defamation are Google reviews.

Chris Kriketos runs a family-owned business The Baker’s Oven Cafe in a prime tourist area of Sydney.

He said his venue has struggled with Google reviews for many years.

In his view, often because customers fail to take into account staff shortages and its location, which means prices need to be higher than neighbourhood bakeries to make rent.

“You can’t explain that to every person,” he said.

“It’s the age of the keyboard warrior.”

He has tried to get in touch with people who leave bad reviews to explain his business’ side of the story, as well as notifying Google about reviews he sees as bad faith.

“It does affect you mentally, emotionally,” he said.

“After a hard day’s work, you open your phone, and you get a notification about two one-star reviews.”

Mr Kriketos told the ABC he turned to Removify, a business that helps people try to remove negative online content, but without much success.

The company takes on cases linked to issues such as privacy or copyright violations as well as defamation, but it “cannot and will not get everything down”, according to Adrian Hall, Removify’s head of partnerships.

He declined to comment on specific customers due to client confidentiality.

“Ultimately when people come to us it’s because it’s cost-effective and they want to put it in the rear-view mirror,” he said.

Such requests face the headwinds of local law, as well as Google’s own policies.

Clients may not be taken on because there is no legal reason for Removify to ask Google to remove the content.

Mr Hall also said the company would not help clients have government notices de-indexed, for example.

Prices can vary, but a successful removal request for a review that breaches a platform’s policies might cost $495 for some clients, he said, while an attempt to de-index a potentially defamatory article might cost between $2,500 to $3,500.

The lack of a guaranteed outcome was also emphasised by Kavita Sharma, a senior reputation manager at Internet Removals, which offers similar services.

She said one URL might be $550, while something published on a news site could be about $1,100.

“Dealing with the likes of Google, Facebook and Meta, it can be difficult because they’re adhering to the US constitution, we have to bring them down to the local legal principle,” she said.

“One thing we tell all of our clients is, don’t expect results to be instantaneous.”

Ms Sharma said she advises customers it can take up to three months to get a result, although in some cases, she has seen an outcome in just a few days.

Targeting government notices and news articles

While Lumen’s database contains thousands of intellectual property complaints and take-down requests from people facing harassment campaigns, there are also instances where news and government links have been targeted.

In July, Internet Removals requested articles from The Sydney Morning Herald and 9Now concerning surgeon William Mooney be removed by Google from its search engine, for example.

Both news reports detailed how the surgeon had been struck off for one year following a tribunal that found Dr Mooney was guilty of professional misconduct after the deaths of two patients.

It doesn’t appear the request was successful.

Dr Mooney declined to comment.

In another case, Internet Removals attempted to have several news links and an ASIC notice related to businessman Fred Mohammed be de-indexed.

The 2018 ASIC notice included in the request detailed how Mr Mohammed was charged with fraud related to a business called Crane Trucks R Us.

The former company director was convicted of the offence in 2021.

Mr Mohammed confirmed his Internet Removals request to the ABC, but said the service hadn’t been successful in his case.

He said he understood these articles could be considered part of the public record, but that he’d made the attempt because he was trying to move forward — and such search results didn’t help.

“You can’t penalise people forever,” he said.

“You should let people move on.”

Internet Removals said removals related to claims of defamation account for a very small percentage of its work, which includes removing pirated products for software companies or getting private information deleted.

Where it does take on cases like Mr Mooney’s or Mr Mohammed’s, the company conducts an initial assessment call to work out whether it judges there are any potential merits to the case and asks for supporting documentation, according to Zach, a senior reputation analyst at Internet Removals.

“In terms of public interest, we do consider this factor, and often this is raised as a defence by Google, and we then notify our clients of this position,” he said.

“Sometimes [we] aren’t choosing between a client, or the public, but the mental and physical health of related individuals.”

‘A chilling effect’

Michael Douglas is a lawyer and senior lecturer at the University of Western Australia law school who has made take-down requests on behalf of clients.

In his experience, Google doesn’t remove things “lightly”, but like other platforms that receive such notices, it might struggle to know if the underlying content is true — a potential defence against claims of defamation if they reach court.

“If the intermediary is risk averse … they might just take the content down,” he said.

“On the one hand, it sucks that intermediaries have to determine the defensibility of content they didn’t create, but on the other, they are running businesses based on this information and sometimes this information harms people.”

There is also legal uncertainty about the status of search results in Australia, which is a notoriously plaintiff-friendly jurisdiction for defamation.

The High Court’s decision in Google v Defteros, for example, found that Google was not liable for merely providing links to content that may be defamatory.

The case involved a Melbourne lawyer George Defteros, who sued Google alleging it was the publisher of defamatory material for providing a link in search results to an article in The Age that he claimed defamed him.

The High Court found the hyperlink only facilitated access to the article and did not help communicate it.

There are situations where a search engine could potentially still be at risk: where the snippet text provided by the search engine is defamatory, for example, or where the link is sponsored, according to David Rolph, a defamation expert and professor of law at the University of Sydney.

He said de-linking material from search results is also a way that companies like Google can manage risk.

The obvious risk of the booming de-indexing industry is that material may not be defamatory under Australian law, he suggested, meaning that the effect of taking down that material may be to needlessly remove something from the public domain.

“There’s obviously a chilling effect on freedom of speech and public interest journalism from that,” Professor Rolph said.

“That’s the difficult balance that search engines are placed in.”

*Ariel Bogle is a reporter with ABC Science. Michael Workman is an Audience Development Producer at ABC.

This article first appeared at abc.net.au

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