Your reputation online is becoming more and more important in today’s marketplace and damage to it can affect your employment, personal life, and financial prospects. Negative or damaging information about yourself or your business can spread like wildfire on the internet if not addressed quickly. Below, we’ll be discussing some of the steps you’ll need to take to get that damaging content removed.
Start at the content’s source.
Your first step should be to remove the content directly from its source whether it be on Twitter or Facebook or Yelp. When you go directly to the source of the content it will not spread byshowing up on search engine pages, or otherwise be pulled into other websites.
To do this, you should to reach out to the individual directly before seeking a legal remedy. Assuming that the individual poster is refusing your request, or more likely, that individual is anonymous, your next step is to go the owner of the website.
Most websites that allow users to post content have terms of service requirements and a quick and cheap way of removing the content is to see if it violates those terms. If they do, the website owner should happily remove the content for you. If they refuse as well, now you may need to bring a legal action.
If the reason you are looking to have content removed is because it is in violation of a copyright you have on the content, you can serve a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice.
A DMCA takedown notice is a legal notice to remove your copyrighted material that is being posted online. It is sent from the copyright holder (you) to the person who unlawfully posted the content, or to the website, search engine, or web host where the content was posted. DMCA takedown notices have the benefit of taking comparatively less time than a court order. More info on DMCA takedown notices can be found here. If the content doesn’t fall under copyright law then you’ll likely need to get a court order.
Obtaining a court order to remove online content requires that you first file a lawsuit against the author of the content. Winning a defamation or tortious interference lawsuit is a bit outside the scope of this article so we don’t be getting into those details. But it is important to note that even if the content is damaging to you, it might not be illegal. Before embarking on this costly option, be sure that the content is something a court might consider illegal. A negative review of your business isn’t usually something a court would consider actionable.
Another obstacle you may encounter, and one that is rather common, is that the author of the content is unknown. User Generated Content (UGC) platforms like Twitter or Facebook (where users are the ones creating the content, not the websites themselves) allow complete anonymity to the point where even the website owner may be in the dark as to who their users real identities are. The issue being, how do I get a court order against an anonymous person?
The good news is that to obtain a court order, injured parties are only required to take reasonable steps to attempt to notify or confront the author of the content. It doesn’t require that you have to know who the author is, only that you made a good faith effort to try and identify and contact this person. So if you made that effort and there really is no way of finding out who this person is, then you can still get a court order against an anonymous ‘Jon Doe’.
Enforcing the Order Against the Author
If you are lucky enough to know who the author is and they are in a jurisdiction where the court order is enforceable then this should be the end of the matter. You went right to the source of the problem and addressed it there. That individual must remove the damaging content and cannot repost it anywhere.
However, if your court order is against a ‘Jon Doe’ and you don’t actually have anybody to serve the order on, you now have to go up the chain so to speak and take the order to the websites that host the content or the search engines which make it accessible.
Enforcing the Order Against a UGC Platform
If the author of the content isn’t an option, you’ll next need to go to the owner of the website where the content is posted. This is not as simple as it may seem. Your order isn’t against the website where the content is, it is against the author.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act prevents courts from viewing interactive computer service providers (what the code calls UGC’s like Twitter or Facebook) as “publishers” in cases involving content published by third-parties. This legislation gives websites immunity from any illegal content its users publish on their platform.
While websites, search engines, and companies are not legally obligated to honor these types of court orders, the good news is that most have policies in place acknowledging their authority and will voluntarily honor them. But not all do. One instance of a website refusing to comply is ripoffreport.com in the case of Blockowicz v. Williams.
The Blockowiczs obtained a default injunction against the posters of defamatory content requiring removal of the posts. With court order in hand but the defendants missing, the Blockowiczs approached numerous websites and asked them to remove the posts. All complied except ripoffreport.com which has a well-publicized no-takedown policy, even if the authors themselves wants to remove their post. The court ruled in favor of ripoffreport.com saying that they were not bound by the order.
So while rare, you should be aware that a court order is not guaranteed to work against anyone other than the original author of the content. This risk also applies to search engines.
Enforcing the Order Against a Search Engine
If all else fails, you can take your court order to a search engine and have the content de-indexed from search results. De-indexing will not remove the content from the Internet. The content will still appear on the website where it was originally posted but will not appear in search results.
While this may seem like a deficient outcome, the reality is that this is basically as good as removal. To a very large degree, search engines have become the internet. If something is not indexed by Google, or it isn’t searchable and prominent within the search engines, it might as well not exist. Only the most determined would go through the trouble of clicking on links that do not mention you.
Court orders are useful tools in getting damaging content removed online. The posters of negative content must follow court orders or face being held in contempt of court. Even if that fails and you are up against an uncooperative defendant or platform, alternative methods exist to get the content removed.
If you have legal questions about how to remove information from the Internet, contact Revision Legal at 231-714-0100.