Chris Kriketos sitting in his family-owned business

Hidden from the public eye, a war is being waged over what we see in our search results

When Australians search online to choose a restaurant or screen a new doctor, they may expect Google results to provide a full record of all the information available.

But there is a hidden struggle that will change what we see. In fact, there’s an entire industry dedicated to helping you get your worst moments off the internet — for a fee.

At a time when anonymous and malicious criticism or harassment posted online can ruin a business, that may be a good thing.

But an ABC investigation has found that some individuals and companies are attempting to have information believed to be 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.

Content that individuals and companies have attempted to deindex includes ASIC announcements and hundreds of reports from news outlets such as The Sydney Morning Herald, 9Now and The Daily Telegraph.

Using data collected by Harvard University’s Lumen database, which monitors takedown notices sent to companies like Google, the ABC found that Australia’s defamation-related inquiries rose to a peak of at least 1,826 in 2020 . In 2022 there have been almost 400 so far.

It’s difficult to determine how many allegedly defamatory links or reviews that should be removed have been successfully deleted from search results or deindexed because Lumen doesn’t always record a result.

Google’s Transparency Report only shares data on delistings and takedown requests from authorities or courts: for example, from July to December 2021, 185 items were specifically requested under the latter category to remove from Google search.

Of all inquiries received during this period, 7 percent related to defamation — the second largest category after bullying or harassment (74 percent).

However, these results do not include requests from individuals or other entities. That means we know little about how our search results might change — or how the reputation management industry that helps people make such queries even works.

The “Age of the Keyboard Warrior”

According to lumen information by far The most common type of content to be taken down in Australia for defamation allegations is Google reviews.

Chris Kriketos runs the family 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. From his perspective, often because customers don’t consider the staffing shortage and location, which means prices have to be higher than neighborhood bakeries to earn rent.

“You can’t explain that to everyone,” he said. “It’s the age of the keyboard warrior.”

Chris Kriketos listed help to try and remove negative content online, but with little success.(ABC News: Jack Fisher)

He has attempted to reach out to people who leave bad reviews to explain his business’s page and to alert Google about reviews he sees as bad faith.

“It affects you mentally and emotionally,” he said. “After a hard day’s work, you open your phone and you get a notification of two one-star reviews.”

Mr. Kriketos told the ABC he approached Removify, a company that helps people remove negative online content, but without much success.

The company takes on cases related to issues such as privacy or copyright infringement and defamation, but it “can’t and won’t nail everything,” according to Adrian Hall, Removify’s head of partnerships. He declined to comment on specific customers for reasons of customer confidentiality.

“Ultimately, people come to us because it’s inexpensive and they want to put it in the rearview mirror,” he said.

Such requests face headwinds from local laws as well as Google’s own policies.

Customers must not be taken over as there is no legal ground for Removify to ask Google to remove the content. Mr Hall also said the company would not help clients deindex government communications, for example.

Pricing can vary, but a successful request to remove a review that violates a platform’s policies could cost $495 for some customers, he said, while trying to deindex a potentially defamatory article could cost between $2,500 and $3,500 could cost US dollars.

The lack of a guaranteed result was also pointed out by Kavita Sharma, Senior Reputation Manager at Internet Removals, which offers similar services. She said a URL could cost $550, while something published on a news site could cost around $1,100.

“Companies like Google, Facebook and Meta can be difficult to deal with because they comply with the US Constitution, we have to bring them down to local rule of law,” she said.

“One thing we say to all of our clients is, don’t expect instant results.”

Ms Sharma said she advises clients that it can take up to three months to see results, although in some cases she has seen results in just a few days.

Targeting of government announcements and news articles

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

In July, for example, Internet Removals requested that Google remove articles from The Sydney Morning Herald and 9Now about surgeon William Mooney from its search engine.

Both news reports detailed how the surgeon had been fired for a year after the deaths of two patients after a court found that Dr. Mooney was guilty of professional misconduct.

Apparently the request was unsuccessful. dr Mooney declined to comment.

In another case, Internet Removals attempted to deindex several news links and an ASIC story related to businessman Fred Mohammed.

The 2018 ASIC notice included in the request detailed how Mr. Mohammed was charged with fraud involving a company called Crane Trucks R Us. The former company director was convicted of the offense in 2021.

Mr Mohammed confirmed his internet move request to the ABC but said the service had not been successful in his case.

He said he understood those articles might be considered part of the public record, but he made the attempt because he was trying to get ahead – and such search results didn’t help.

“You can’t punish people forever,” he said. “You should let people move on.”

Internet Removals said removals related to defamation lawsuits make up a very small percentage of its work, which includes removing pirated content for software companies or deleting private information.

According to Zach, a senior reputation analyst at Internet, when it accepts cases like Mr. Mooney’s or Mr. Mohammed’s, the company conducts an initial assessment call to see if it concludes the case has potential benefits and asks for supporting documents removals.

“In terms of public interest, we take that factor into account, and often that’s put forward by Google as a defense, and we then inform our clients of that position,” he said.

Once in a while [we] are not choosing between a customer or the public, but the mental and physical health of relatives.”

“A deterrent effect”

Michael Douglas is an attorney and lecturer at the University of Western Australia Law School who has submitted takedown requests on behalf of clients.

In his experience, Google doesn’t remove things “frivolously,” but like other platforms that receive such notifications, it could be difficult to know if the underlying content is true — a potential defense against defamation claims if they go to court.

“If the intermediary is risk-averse … they could just remove the content,” he said.

“On the one hand, it sucks that intermediaries have to determine the justification of content they didn’t create, but on the other hand, they do business based on that information, and sometimes that information hurts people.”

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

For example, the High Court decision in Google v Defteros found that Google is not liable for the mere provision of links to potentially defamatory content.

A recreation area at Google headquarters in Sydney.
Google can manage risky content by unlinking material.(ABC News: Stephen Hutcheon)

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

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

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

He said unlinking material from search results is also a way for companies like Google to manage risk.

The obvious risk of the booming de-indexing industry is that material may not be defamatory under Australian law, he suggested, meaning removal of that material could result in libel effortlessly remove something from the public domain.

“This obviously has a chilling effect on freedom of expression and public interest journalism,” said Professor Rolph.

“That’s the difficult balance that search engines fall into.”

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