A newspaper article defaming a person is accessible to the newspaper’s readers and is only really meaningful to those readers who actually read the article, know the person being defamed and who are inclined to have an adverse opinion about that person. Defamatory content published online is shared, indexed and republished by the people who view the content and by third parties who come across it and share it themselves. Social networks only add to defamatory content’s potential distribution and we have already seen instances of social networks being used to defame people (see this post as an example).
One of the biggest challenges is how to deal with defamatory content which is indexed by search engines like Google. Google has a pretty long memory. Its agents scour the Web for new content and add it to its search index. When defamatory content is shared, discussed, linked to search queries based on that content or for terms included in that defamatory content bring that defamatory content out again and again.
There was a case in South Africa a couple years ago involving a local motivational speaker who was defamed in a popular blog. People searching for the speaker would find the offending blog post in the top search results on Google’s front page. Of course having the search result appear on the front page only boosted its visibility and added to the number of shares, discussions and links which only reinforced its position in the search results. It became a self-perpetuating cycle.
This same cycle which marketers try introduce to their products and services can have a devastating impact on people who are defamed, rightly or wrongly.
So what is a person to do about content that defames him or her and which is scooped up in Google’s search index? The dispute with the defamer may have been resolved in some way and the content may have been removed but what happens if Google still reflects that content in its search results? Can you have Google remove that content from its index?
Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Webspam team, published a post about this recently. Essentially there are two ways to have the offending content removed from Google’s index. The first is to remove the content from the Web and wait for Google’s agents to update its index (which should no longer have the content listed) and the other is to obtain a court order requiring Google to remove the content from its index. As Cutts puts it:
The best actions for you from our perspective can be one of a couple options. Either contact whoever put up webpage B and convince them to modify or to take the page down. Or if the page is doing something against the law, get a court to agree with you and force webpage B to be removed or changed. We really don’t want to be taking sides in a he-said/she-said dispute, so that’s why we typically say “Get the page fixed, changed, or removed on the web and then Google will update our index with those changes the next time that we crawl that page.” Our policies outside the U.S. might be different; I’m not as familiar with how legal stuff works outside the U.S.
Google’s official documentation on this topic specifically deals with this question:
Contact the webmaster to get this content changed or removed. Why we don’t do anything about defamatory content: Google.com is a U.S. site regulated by U.S. law. Under section 230(c) of the Communications Decency Act, Google does not remove allegedly defamatory material from our search results. If you don’t live in the U.S., fill out this form to report the alleged defamation.
It is certainly not a simple matter. If you are defamed online your best chance of addressing that online content is to have the content removed from the site/s it is published on and, if you sue the defamer, remember to seek an order from the court directing Google (or the relevant search engine) to remove the content from its index. There may be a jurisdictional hurdle to clear but having a Google office in South Africa should help address that issue.