To remove defamatory content from Google's listings, you usually need a court order. To get a court order, you have to:
- File a defamation lawsuit,
- Identify the poster if they are anonymous, often with a subpoena for their IP address and name,
- Prove in court that the statement was defamatory, and
- Submit the court order to Google.
What is Online Defamation?
Internet defamation is the online publication of a statement of fact that is verifiably false and that is harmful to your reputation. When it is written, as most online statements are, it is libel. If it is spoken, like in a YouTube video, it is slander.
Online defamation is often done by competing businesses. The libelous statements are frequently made in online reviews, social media posts, or even in news articles. The victims of these false and harmful statements are entitled to legal damages, financial compensation, and the removal of the content.
When the defamation is online, the main way that the false or misleading statement is spread is through search engines, particularly Google. People who use Google to learn about your business end up finding the defamatory content, instead, hurting your reputation and deterring clients and customers. The financial loss that your business can suffer can be significant.
Removing offending content from the search results is often one of the most important parts of protecting your business.
Google's Role in Online Defamation
It is important to remember that Google's role in online defamation is as an amplifier of the false information, not as its creator. Search engines like Google merely index what is on the internet and tell users what websites are relevant and important for their search query.
That is why federal law protects search engines from civil liability by defining them as an “interactive computer service” in the Communications Decency Act. Unfortunately, this means that victims of online defamation cannot recover compensation from search engines. Instead, they have to pursue the author of the offending content.
Is it Worth Asking the Poster to Remove the Content?
A first step for most businesses who have found that someone is defaming them online is to politely ask the poster to remove their own content. While it rarely produces results, it is often still worth doing for two reasons:
- It shows that you are trying to find a reasonable solution, and
- You can learn more about what the other person is saying.
Taking calm and reasonable steps to resolve the situation can improve your credibility, should the case go to court. More importantly, though, you can find out if what the person is saying about you or your business is actually true. Truth is a defense to defamation claims, and if you file a lawsuit and lose because the court finds that the statement that you thought was defamatory was actually true, you will now have a publically-available court ruling that affirms that the negative statement about your business was correct – a very damning result.
If the poster refuses to take their defamatory content down, you can escalate it by sending a cease-and-desist letter. This does not necessarily have to be done through the mail – in online defamation cases, sending it may take some creativity. Hiring a lawyer to send it will give the notice far more gravitas, because it will make it clear to the poster that you are willing to follow through on your demands and take legal action.
Filing the Defamation Lawsuit
The next step is to file the defamation lawsuit.
While it is better to have the name of the poster on the complaint at the outset, the claim can be filed as a “John Doe” lawsuit – one that argues that an as-yet-unidentifiable person has made defamatory statements about you or your business. You can then file a subpoena – a court-backed demand for information – to discover the poster's IP address and their name. Once you have their name, the complaint can be amended to include their identity and then served on the defendant.
In many cases, getting served with a lawsuit is enough to make the defamer take their statement down.
If they still refuse, though, the case will move forward until it is either settled or it goes to trial.
If the case goes to trial and you win the verdict, you will get a court order saying that the statement was, in fact, defamatory. If you settle the case with the defendant, though, they will have to admit wrongdoing in order for you to get a court order that will work.
Using the Court Order to Remove the Content from Google's Listings
Once you have a court order saying that the statement was defamatory, you can use it to support a content removal request to Google. By having the content removed from the results page, you can drastically undercut the web traffic that the defamatory page receives. Without the offending listing in Google's results page, people looking for information about your business will not be distracted with false or misleading claims that harm its reputation.
You can also use the court order to repeat the process with other search engines, like Bing.
What About Copyrighted, Explicit, or Personal Material?
Google’s Terms of Service aim to protect people's copyrighted material and keep explicit or extremely personal content, like medical records, from appearing in the results. Getting these types of content removed from the listings is often much easier because they violate Google's policies. It rarely requires a court order.
Internet Defamation Lawyers at the Katz Law Group
Protecting your business' reputation online has become one of the most important parts of running a company. The internet defamation lawyers at the Katz Law Group can help. Contact them online or call their law office at (508) 480-8202.