If you find negative online content which attacks your reputation, it can be a devastating experience. Information on the internet is shared quickly and widely, and that means that as days pass, it’s likely that the issue will grow in magnitude. While the online world of social media and websites can bring considerable advantages to our lives, when the content causes immense stress and worry, then it’s an issue that needs quick resolution. In 2021, removing defamatory content can form as essential part of your online strategy.

Freedom of speech is important, but when information is posted online, which is defamatory, then you have rights relating to its removal. However, before you get help through the law by obtaining a court order, it’s essential to understand precisely what defamation is and the options available to you for removing negative or false information.

What is Defamation?

Many people associate defamation with those in the public eye, so actors, sportspeople and politicians. However, the legislation applies equally to all members of society. When defamatory statements have been made that can damage an individual’s personal reputation, it makes no difference whether they are a well-known name.

Towards an Individual

Defamation relates to the publication of information that adversely affects someone’s reputation. You may be familiar with the terms libel and slander, and these are both forms of defamation. Libel general referring to written statements, such as those within printed publications or placed online, while slander is all about the spoken word.

Towards a Business

Defamatory comments can also be made about a business or brand. The rules do differ in that it’s not enough just to make false comments that will affect the business’s reputation; it also has to be shown that it would or has the potential to cause a serious financial impact. With online sentiment (especially online reviews) forming such a key part of the modern consumer decision-making process, many business make serious efforts in removing defamatory content.

UK Legislation

While the UK doesn’t class defamation as a criminal action, it does still recognise the damage that it can cause. So, if proven through a civil action, then the judge can award significant damages to the plaintiff alongside the removal of the damaging media.

It should be recognised, though, that not every country sees defamation in the same way, and it some countries, it continues to be a criminal offence. This is undoubtedly the case in parts of the world where dictatorships exist and where it’s used to restrict the freedom of speech, particularly for journalists and opposition political parties.

The UK decided that defamation provides a balance between allowing freedom of speech and ensuring that there are repercussions for presenting false information. They recognised that online content could damage someone’s reputation or business, and there needed to be a process to request its removal.

We mentioned earlier that there are some situations where even if the content seems to be defamatory, there may not be the right for it to be removed. These include:

Truth

If the person who posted the content can show that the statement under question is true or it’s substantially true, then there is no case to be heard.

Honest Opinion

This used to be called ‘fair comment’, but it does exclude situations when there is malicious intent. For there to be a defence of honest opinion, it needs to be shown that:

  1. that the content was an opinion;
  2. that there is an apparent basis to the opinion;
  3. an honest person could also have formed that opinion

Public Interest

If someone feels that they are in a position whereby sharing content is necessary for moral, legal or social reasons, then they may call on the public interest defence within a defamation case. This could include situations where the material shared does later turn out to be incorrect, but at the time, they felt it was necessary to publish before verifying its accuracy.

Privilege

This defence covers situations in which a person has the right to make statements in quite specific circumstances. So this could include information provided within the setting of judicial proceedings.

What Do Google Search Results Say About You?

So we’ve established that there may be a case for action to be taken if false and damaging information has been posted about you online. One way to check what content there is about you on the internet is to undertake a search for your name via a search engine such as Google.

If you find false and damaging information, then when you may come to one of two conclusions:

1. The information is not beneficial to your online reputation 

In this situation, the information may not come under the classification as defamatory, but equally, you may feel that it’s causing some damage to your online reputation. This might relate to past court cases, associations with others or previous events in your life.

In this situation, a reputation management strategy is needed, which will allow you to present a more positive impression for others to see.

2. The information is defamatory

When the search engine results have brought back information that is untrue and is damaging to your reputation, then there are steps that can be taken to have the offending detail removed.

Before you go any further, it is worth considering that we’re talking about Google here because it’s the most common search engine that people use. That then means that it’s also where users are most likely to come across defamatory information. But do remember that Google just reports back on information that it finds online by trawling through published websites.

So, removing information from Googles search results will not remove content from the website that published it to begin with. As a result, you should also consider approaching the website on which the negative content is published so that it is removed from the internet.

Why Removing Defamatory Information is Important

It should come as no surprise that most people will want damaging or defamatory content relating to them to be removed from internet search results. This often includes articles that can be read on news sites, posts on social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and videos on YouTube.

There are many reasons why it’s essential to address defamatory statements found on the internet. One key reason comes from recognising how often others might Google your name to enable them to access specific information about you. These could be future employers, friend and families, and even prospective business partners. Removing defamatory content is as much a personal decision as it is a business one. When negative or false information is found, it really can change the direction your life might take and the opportunities open to you.

While you may think that you’ve done nothing noteworthy enough to be mentioned online, people are often surprised at the results they get when they carry out an internet search!

Requesting The Removal of Information from Google

If you’ve identified information that you believe to be defamatory, you may now need to make an application for removing that content with Google. Now, this is a step that in some circumstances requires no court order. But before starting this process, it’s helpful to appreciate how Google and other search engines work to fully understand if you can get the result you would like.

How Google Works

When you use Google to find information online, it uses a tool called PageRank to decide which websites you see first. PageRank gives each webpage a score for its relevancy to the words you searched for, and this is based upon many factors, including:

  • How often and where those keywords appear within websites
  • How long the website has been live on the internet
  • How many other online websites link to that page

Google then searches through billions of webpages to present the most relevant ones for the keywords you put into the search box. In fact, it acts much like a highly efficient librarian searching the library records for you to find the most relevant resources.

So, now you can see that while Google is presenting the information to you, it’s not responsible for the negative content being online in the first place.

Requesting the Removal of Information

Google takes its responsibilities seriously, so there are often situations where making a complaint to remove content is undertaken by making a request through the search engines website’s support pages. The type of content which fits into this category includes:

Copyrighted Content

If someone is sharing your creative work, then you are entitled to copyright protection. This could include photos, writing art and lyrics. In this situation, you’re able to send what’s called a DMCA takedown notice. The type of content that this could cover includes pictures you’ve taken, lyrics or writings, video, and other forms of art. If there is sharing of your copyrighted content on Google and it’s without your consent, then there are two options:

DMCA Takedown Notice

DMCA stands for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. The DMCA takedown notice is a legal request to remove copyrighted online content. Generally, it’s issued to the person who posted the content, or it could go to the website owner, the search engine or to the hosting company. Whoever is responsible it’s usually a very effective way of obtaining someone’s attention!

Request Notice via Google

You could alternatively send a request to Google via this form. Reporting the infringement will allow Google to investigate the issue and where the content is found to be an infringement of copyright, to take it from Google’s services. Do be aware, though, that taking this route means that the information is still visible on the website, but it will no longer be shown within the search results.

Revenge Pornography

If explicit pornographic images or videos of you have been shared without your permission, then due to its invasive nature, Google will normally help to remove the content without the need for a court order. Again, you can report the issue via the online form directly to Google.

Child Pornography

Google utilises artificial intelligence to detect child pornography across its platform, but it’s still possible that some incidences aren’t detected. Child pornography can be reported to Google via their report a violation page to ensure rapid removal and for law enforcement agencies to be informed.

Defamatory Content

Defamatory content can, however, be a little more tricky to get removed from Google. That’s because its moderators are not in a position to act as a judge to decide whether or not the content meets the legal definition of defamation.

Defamation is a legal term, so that means that it is best assessed by those qualified within the applicable law and legislation. From a legal standpoint, defamation implies that a false statement has been published or communicated to a third party, and that has then caused damage to someone’s reputation.

However, there is little lost by reporting what you believe to be defamatory to see if Google will assist by removing content for you.

The Right To Be Forgotten

As a different approach, the General Data Protection Regulation provides the legal basis for an individual to ‘be forgotten’. This means that search engines such as Google must de-list the website links if search results for your name are irrelevant, outdated, inaccurate or otherwise unlawful. Generally, the older and less relevant information is more likely to be removed though, there are several situations where the right to be forgotten doesn’t apply.

Again, do remember that while the website details will no longer appear within the search results, it does not remove content from the internet. This means that while it will be more difficult for someone to find the material, it does not remove defamatory content from the offending website. However, where the content has gone viral or published in parts of the world where there is no effective legislation regarding removing content, the right to be forgotten can be a step in the right direction.

When is There No Right to Be Forgotten?

As a general rule, if your personal information is being used in the public interest or under a legal obligation, then the right to be forgotten no longer applies. So, this might include when your data is being used to:

  • Exercise the right to freedom of expression and information
  • Comply with a legal ruling or obligation
  • Perform preventative or occupational medicine
  • Establish a legal defence

A request may also be denied when it’s considered to be ‘manifestly unfounded’ or where it is excessive. When assessing whether this is the case, as long as the request wasn’t submitted to cause disruption or to try and elicit money, then it’s unlikely to be considered ‘manifestly unfounded’ or ‘excessive’.

Before Getting a Court Order for Content Removal

While it might be tempting to go straight down the legal route and applying for a court order, there may be alternatives that provide a quicker way to remove content from the internet. Now, this does mean that there is unlikely to be the payment of any damages, but if the information is removed from the website quickly and prevents any further risk to your reputation, then this might be a good option for you.

Contact the Author of the Offending Content

There is the possibility that the content was posted without the author fully understanding the repercussions of their actions. That then means that the first step can be to contact them and simply request that they remove defamatory material from the internet while also advising them of the legal repercussions of not doing so.

Contact the Website Owner

It might be that it’s impossible to identify the author of the negative content or establish contact with them. Alternatively, they may not act on your request to remove the offending media. However, it may be that the information was posted onto a site on the internet, which is owned by somebody else. In this situation, making contact with the website owner is the next option. Again it ensures that they are aware of their legal obligations for removing content even though they did not make the post.

Contact the Hosting Company

The next option would be to contact the internet service provider (ISP) for the website to inform them of the offending content on their platform. Whilst the author of the defamatory content can be held liable for defamation, so can the ISP. Remember that reputation management applies just as much to a business or brand as it does to an individual. With this in mind, they may be amenable to removing content to prevent further claims against their company and its associated negative reputation damage.

Getting A Court Order For Content Removal

In some situations, the severity of the defamation or the lack of action from authors and others can mean taking legal action through a court order will be the most effective plan of action. Do though be aware of what’s become known as the ‘Streisand Effect’.

The Streisand Effect

When Barbra ­Streisand found out that an aerial ­photograph of her Californian home was published on the internet, she hit the photographer Kenneth Adelman and the publisher, Pictopia, with a $50million lawsuit. Now the photo was one of 12,000 published as a series of images, and it’s highly unlikely that many would have found the image of her home within all of those photographs. However, once the case became public knowledge, the image was linked to from numerous websites, and over half a million people downloaded it within a month.

So, you do need to bear in mind that from the point of the application for the court order through to a decision being made on the case, it could easily be over 12 months. That means that there is the potential to draw more attention to something you are trying to suppress.

Obtaining A Court Order

When you’ve sought legal advice, and it’s been decided that a court order is the best option to get content removed from the internet, then this is when your legal team steps into action. In the UK, that’s likely to be your lawyer, and in the US, your attorney but either way, you will need specialised legal representation with experience in defamation claims.

They will develop a case to present to the court which outlines the statements in question and the reasons as to why the removal of the specific content is required. In addition, it will state the damage that it is causing or could cause in the future if its removal is not ordered.

In this situation, its strongly recommended that you seek the services of a reputation management company. They will work alongside a legal team experienced within this field of law and who are experienced in removing false and damaging negative content.

Online Reputation Management

If you’re not already seeking the assistance of a reputation management service during this period, then you may be missing the opportunity for their help in developing your personal reputation. That’s because they can immediately start to work on influencing what people see when they search the internet for your name even before the process of removing content has begun.

The reputation management consultant will work with you to increase the likelihood of positive material being presented when others search for your details on the internet. This can be done through search engine optimisation, a process used to increase websites’ visibility within search results. As a result, even before there has been the removal of negative online information, it’s been replaced by more positive search results.

When you find defamatory material on the internet that attacks your personal reputation, you need to be aware of the options available to you to ensure that you secure your positive online reputation.

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