Why Google De-Indexing May NOT be an Effective Reputation Management Solution.

What reputation management companies should know, defamation lawyers probably already know, but clients either aren’t being warned about or the clients are willing to try it anyway…

So your client comes in and complains that someone defamed them on the internet.  You put on your Super Lawyer cape and rush in to save the day.  No problem, you’ll walk through the litigation, get a court order that tells Google to remove, block or otherwise de-index the content from their search engine and, viola!  Problem solved, right?  WRONG.

While I sort of eluded to these issues in my blog article troubles with defamatory online reviews and content scrapers, just because search engines like Google will agree to de-index (which arguably, at least in the United States, they are under no obligation to do thanks to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act) doesn’t mean that the content goes away.  Indeed, it remains alive in many ways:

  1. The complaint that you filed, which contained the alleged defamatory language and or copies of the alleged defamatory postings is STILL part of the public court record and, in theory, always will be – most of which is accessible online;
  2. The website that hosts the alleged defamatory content may refuse (rightfully under the current US laws) to remove the content regardless of whether or not it is found to be defamatory;
  3. Google might “de-index” but they pretty much give people a road map on where to find the information via the Lumen Database and provide, where applicable, the supporting documents like a court order which, if people are smart and interested, they can find more information about the litigation through court records; and
  4. Under most privilege laws, one could write a story about the court case, even repeating verbatim the defamatory language right out of the court record, without penalty.

Indeed, if you search out a particular name in Google, and you see, at the bottom of the search results a statement about the matter having been removed from the search engine links, chances are, someone had information removed for some reason.  Typically a link to the Lumen Database is provided by Google and parties can click on that link to learn more about why the information was removed and what links were subject to being removed from the search results.

Depending on the situation, this “de-indexing” may not even last that long.  All a website has to do, if they were so inclined, is to update the URL and that would render the original URL de-index essentially useless.  The party who submit the information would then have to go back and try again by either getting another court order or resubmitting what they have to Google again – but then it could become a game of whack-a-mole and for what? The information is STILL available anyway.

I completely understand wanting to find a solution for relief for those that have genuinely been harmed online but I think there needs to be a shift from trying to bury and cover things up to providing A LOT more education regarding these issues (why people should be leery of what they read online, ways to not get themselves into these problems in the first place, constructive ways of handling issues) and perhaps, as I said recently, come up with harsher punishment for internet defamers.

Until next time friends…

All information contained in this blog (www.beebelawpllc.blog.com) is meant to be for general informational purposes only and should not be misconstrued as legal advice or relied upon.  All legal questions should be directed to a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.

 

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Should websites be able to raise objections on behalf of their anonymous users? A California Appellate Court thinks so – Glassdoor v. Superior Court (Machine Zone, Inc.)

While I sometimes think that the California courts can get things wrong, e.g. Hassell v. Bird (2016) 247 Cal.App.4th 1336, rev. granted, (thank goodness) they also, in my opinion, can get things right.  On March 10, 2017, the Sixth Appellate Court for Santa Clara County, California in the matter of Glassdoor, Inc. v. Superior Court of Santa Clara County (Machine Zone, Inc.), under Case No H042824, concluded that Glassdoor  (a website in which workers can post their own reviews about past or current employers) has standing, i.e, the authority, to assert an anonymous user’s interest in maintaining his anonymity against Machine Zone’s efforts to compel Glassdoor to identify him/her.  Can I get a fricken hallelujah!

Clearly I am elated by this ruling.  This is not only good for people who write honest reviews but also for websites that allow third parties to post content on their websites.  In my line of work I have seen parties file claims against anonymous authors sometimes alleging causes of action that wouldn’t even stand up to basic case analysis of the statute of limitations let alone anything more complicated like ensuring they have met the requirements that are necessary under state law in order for a website to release and anonymous author’s identifying information.  These parties will then submit their subpoena or some form of discovery order to a third-party website like Glassdoor and demand production of the identifying author information.  If the website’s subpoena compliance department is lead by anyone like me, chances are they have an entire checklist of criteria for their respective state that must be met prior to production.  Here in Arizona the controlling law is Mobilisa v. Doe (App. 2007) 217 Ariz. 103, 114-15, 170 P.3d 712, 723-24.  Mobilisa requires that a requesting party show: 1) that the anonymous author has been given adequate notice and a reasonable opportunity to respond to the discovery request (which itself has specific requirements that have to be adhered to); 2) that the requesting party’s cause of action could survive a motion for summary judgment on the elements of the claim not dependent on the identify of the anonymous author (and that requires more than laying out a mere prima facie case); and 3) a balance of the parties’ competing interests needs to favor disclosure.  Indeed, Mobilisa sets out some hoops that requesting parties have to jump through in order to try and protect the rights of an anonymous author and if requesting parties don’t conform, chances are that subpoena is going to be met with objection.

While I haven’t seen it all that often, I can think of a few instances where counsel was met with my objections and they tried to argue that the website lacked standing to raise such objections.  Typically I find this to be the biggest cop out – nothing more than an effort to circumvent the rules – especially when they are met with legitimate objections like statute of limitations or failure to meet other requirements.  Many websites, like Glassdoor, will fight this if challenged and I’m pleased to see this outcome.

Absolutely the anonymous author has their rights and can assert them on their own behalf but there are many reasons why an author may not stand up and defend.  What if the author doesn’t get notice of the matter?  I have personally seen some suspicious activities going on in the past and UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh and Public Citizen Litigation Group attorney Paul Alan Levy have helped raised awareness about many of the same concerns that I have had.  Take for example their Washington Post article which discusses “Dozens of suspicious court cases, with missing defendants, aim at getting web pages taken down or deindexed.”  What if the author lacks the knowledge to even understand that they have a defense?  The minute that a lawsuit gets filed defendants tend to get scared – especially if they are not in a solid financial position.  It’s not uncommon for an author to stand behind their story but fear the litigation and so they bury their head in the sand in hopes that the matter will “go away.”  They may not even consider the fact that they have a defense.  It’s not as if many people have legal knowledge -even the basics – and legal departments of websites can’t be giving people legal advice.  What if the author told the truth and cant afford a defense?   Here again I am aware of a situation where a person wrote a review – alleged that the story was truthful, but got sued in another state over the posting and couldn’t afford to appear and defend the situation in the other state.  How is that justice?  I’m sorry ma’am/sir – your right to free speech is only to the extent your pocket book can pay for a defense?  

Now I’m not suggesting that websites take on the litigation defense of all of their users – that would not be economically feasible.  Websites usually have no unique knowledge that would put them in a position to argue truth as a defense or anything like that.  However, I think websites who want to help protect their anonymous authors should have the ability to stand up to those who may be simply trying to take advantage of an anonymous author’s vulnerabilities through basic objections.  If you are making claims that are so far outside the statute of limitations it isn’t even funny, OBJECTION.  You’re case couldn’t stand on it’s own anyway.  If you aren’t following the correct process under the applicable law to ensure that an author has the appropriate notice and reasonable opportunity to defend, OBJECTION.  You can always attempt to cure the deficiencies and try again.  If you can’t – well, then you probably don’t have much of a case in the first place.  It’s a whole lot easier for a website’s legal department or subpoena compliance department to look at a situation and say “Nope, try again…” or “Nope, not happening…” than it is for a user to try and teach themselves the law or hire expensive counsel (face it – even the cheap attorneys aren’t “cheap”) to teach them the law and make the same objections on their behalf – within a short period of time.

I am so glad that the Glassdoor court recognized some of these issues and considered the potential for chilling effects on free speech.  As the Court points out in Glassdoor, “…some attacks on anonymity may be mounted for their in terrorem effect on potential critics.” Glassdoor at p.12.  This is a fantastic ruling and you can review the entire 33 page ruling below or by clicking HERE.

Until next time friends…

Statute of Limitations is a real thing and why you, a client, should understand it.

In the last couple of weeks I have seen an increasing amount of demand letters threatening litigation or actual lawsuits based on alleged claims that are far outside of the statute of limitations.  A statute of limitations is the law which defines a period of limitation for bringing certain types of legal actions.  Most statute of limitations are between one (1) year and six (6) years depending on the claim.  When a lay person doesn’t know and sends the demand letter or files the complaint I can kind of understand that.  Some people don’t even think about things like that.  While ignorance of the law isn’t a real excuse, it is often looked at with a softer lens by many.  When it is an attorney who does this kind of stuff – I’m sorry, it’s absolutely not excusable.  Indeed, I have seen MANY attorneys make this mistake and it upsets me – not only because it makes other attorneys in the profession look bad but I also feel for the attorney’s client who probably paid for that mistake because they didn’t know better.

An attorney should not be taking a client’s hard earned money to draft a meritless demand letter or complaint!  If your attorney is worth their weight in salt they will spend the time necessary to do the research and will be honest and tell you when your case has no merit… not just take your money and set YOU up for failure.  In fact, such conduct isn’t in line with the Professional Rules of Conduct.  While states typically have their own rules of professional conduct, also known as the Rules of Ethics, it is pretty clear that the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 3.1, says this kind of crap is a no-no.  See the pertinent excerpt below:

Advocate
Rule 3.1 Meritorious Claims And Contentions

A lawyer shall not bring or defend a proceeding, or assert or controvert an issue therein, unless there is a basis in law and fact for doing so that is not frivolous, which includes a good faith argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law…

It seems that the moment someone feels wronged  in some way someone, that person’s first line of thinking tends to be  “I’m gonna sue!”  I see that written and posted online all over the place or hear it in general conversation.  The problem is there are indeed times when you don’t have the legal standing to sue.  Some of the first questions to your attorney should include:

  1. What kinds of claims might I have given my situation?
  2. What are the applicable Statute of Limitations to those claims?
  3. Are any of my claims within those Statute of Limitations?
  4. Are there any viable exceptions to those Statute of Limitations?

If the answers regarding question nos. three and/or four above is “NO” then don’t ask your attorney to draft a demand letter threatening legal action for those claims and certainly don’t ask them to draft a complaint anyway.  Similarly, don’t let your attorney talk you into drafting a demand letter threatening litigation or actually filing a  meritless complaint.  You will only be footing the bill to fail – and filing fees, process server fees, and the time that your attorney will charge you to draft the bogus letter or complaint will only hurt YOUR pocket book.  And, to add salt to the wound, there is a chance that the Defendant could turn around and sue both you, and your attorney, for malicious prosecution.  It happens…and you could end up paying for not only your attorney’s fees BUT the attorneys’ fees of the other party as well.

Long story short – know the statute of limitations for bringing claims and don’t waste time and resources on frivolous demand letters and complaints.  It will save you a lot of time, money and other resources in the end.

If you are in Arizona, and have questions about statute of limitations for a particular claim in Arizona, feel free to contact me.

 

 

Your Kids Cyber-bullying? Eventually You Could be Held Responsible.

In my blog series Fighting Fair on the Internet I have been writing in general about the varying problems I see with use of the internet.  After all, given my unique position and area of law I work in, I have had the opportunity to see all kinds of situations that most people never even think about.  Seriously – the good, bad, and the ugly – I see all of it.  And why do I write about it?  Because everyday I see people making stupid mistakes that eventually end up coming back to haunt them in one way or another and because I think education on these issues, raising awareness, plays a key part in reducing the amount of problems I see.

A colleague of mine showed me an NBC Miami article where Central Florida attorney Mark O’Mara was considering writing law that would give law enforcement officials the ability hold parents accountable for the bad things their kids were doing online.  In response to an arrest back in 2013 of two girls in a Florida bullying and suicide investigation, attorney O’Mara wrote on his blog:

The question is this: is their ignorance and apathy about their daughter’s cyber-bullying criminal? Under our current laws, it looks like the answer is “no.” Should that sort of willful blindness or gross negligence be criminal? I think it should, and here’s why: if a child kills someone while operating a parent’s car, the parents can be held responsible. If a child kills someone while using a parent’s gun, the parent can be held responsible. If a child breaks the law using a computer or cellphone provided by the parent, how is that different?

If you ask me, I am already all for harsher punishment for internet defamers and harassers so his argument makes sense.  That is, of course, so long as the punishment is reasonable but yet has enough teeth to ensure that parents actually monitor and pay some level of attention to what their kids are doing online.  If you are a parent, you SHOULD be monitoring what your kids are doing – not just to keep yourself out of trouble but to protect your child from all the dangers online (physical, mental, and legal).

After my first presentation to high school students regarding internet use and the repercussions from the same, it was abundantly clear that a lot more education was needed.  I went as far as explaining to the students that after my presentation they probably knew more than their parents did – after all, most of us old enough to have teenagers really didn’t have internet growing up and we especially didn’t have social media.  I encouraged students to go home and talk with their parents about what they learned…because not all advice that kids get from their parents is the best – especially when it comes to online issues.

As some food for thought, according to the Cyberbullying Research Institute, 48 states, plus Washington, DC, have laws that include cyber-bullying or online harassment.  Out of those states, 44 of them have criminal sanctions for cyber-bullying or electronic harassment.  Some information regarding the different state laws on these issues can be found here.  Similarly, just remember that “anonymous” doesn’t really mean “anonymous.”  In most cases, your identifying information is only one or two well written subpoenas away.

Long story short, with the continuing increase of use of the internet, don’t be surprised when laws start being enacted to hold parents liable for the wrongs of their children.  Want to be proactive and learn more for yourself, your kids, or even for a group?  Contact me!  See my contact page for more information.

Have thoughts on this to share?  Share them in the comments below!

 

 

Fighting Fair on the Internet – Part 10 | That Would be Harsher Punishment for Internet Defamers Stan…

For many reasons the movie Ms. Congeniality with Sandra Bullock has been a long time favorite of mine.   Especially when she answered the question “What is one of the most important thing our society needs?” with “That would be harsher punishment for parole violators Stan…and world peace!”  I’m pretty sure since that movie first came out in 2000 I have been remixing that one-liner to fit my varying smarty pants comeback needs.  In fact, in muddling to myself just this morning after reviewing some dyspeptic online commentary I determined that I would answer the question “That would be harsher punishment for internet defamers Stan…and world peace!”  It’s true…internet defamers and harassers really do suck.

In my line of work, and in my every day life, I see people being nasty to one another online – and sometimes people really cross the line and forget that words do hurt.  Sometimes I wonder what happened to the good old fashioned “take it out behind the barn and duke it out…looser buys the other guy a drink” form of justice.  Back in the day (and I really hate saying that because I am not THAT old) if anyone ran their mouth in person like they do today online – man, they’d get a beat down and, quite honestly, they would have probably deserved it.  To make matters worse, you get the morons that jump on the keyboard warrior band wagon without having the first clue about what is REALLY going on and they either share the crap out of the false stuff or otherwise join in on the bashing.  When is enough, enough?  What the hell happened to the human connection and manners?  So much of society needs a good metaphorical kick in the teeth.  The First Amendment doesn’t shelter you from false and defamatory statements nor should it be abused as a license to be a jerk-face.  Unfortunately, unlike the “old days,”  it no longer hurts to be stupid and run your mouth.

Indeed I am a Section 230 Communications Decency Act (“CDA”) supporter, because I don’t think that websites should be held liable for the stupid crap that other people do; after all, that mentality is akin to an over weight person blaming the spoon manufacturer for making a spoon that they can use to eat and get fat with.  “…but, but, the spoon made me fat!”  And to those who just read that and got all defensive – clearly my reference isn’t to those who have medical issues or things outside of their control.  I’m talking about the person who is heavy because of purposeful overeating, failing to do exercises, etc.  Sometimes life happens.  We get busy and fail to take care of ourselves as we should but we can’t blame the spoon manufacturer for it.  The spoon didn’t make us fat.  We have no one to blame but ourselves.  This is absolutely no different and trying to hold websites liable for the stupidity of third-parties is asinine to me.  Yes, yes, I am well aware that the CDA protects websites from liability from third-party content, however, it doesn’t seem to stop people and attorneys from filing frivolous lawsuits…but I digress here.  That is another story for another day.  However, I do think that there should be some serious punishment for all these people who purposefully go out of their way to post false and defamatory information about others…the same goes for harassers.  Perhaps if these people got hit harder in the pocket book or were forced into doing community service – like helping with anti-bullying and harassment initiatives, maybe THEN it would slow down. There just needs to be more education and more deterrents.  It’s far too easy to sit behind the keyboard and be mean.  MEAN. PEOPLE. SUCK.

Until next time friends…