Is Ripoff Report subverting Google take-downs?
Previously de-indexed Ripoff Report pages are reappearing and ranking prominently again in Google. Columnist Chris Silver Smith takes a close look at how the site is eluding Google’s page removal processes and how defamation victims — and Google — can fight back.
Anyone familiar with online reputation issues is surely aware of Ripoff Report, a site long considered one of the most destructive on the web when it comes to people’s and companies’ reputations.
Ripoff Report has a well-established practice of refusing any and all demands to remove defamatory materials from its website. Now it’s going even further, moving content around to different URLs after Google has removed the originals from its index to comply with a court order. The result: the content, though declared defamatory in a court of law, could still be accessible through Google.
The business model
As I have outlined previously in articles about online defamation, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act immunizes some types of websites from responsibility/liability for content posted on them by third parties. Essentially, “distributors” of content provided by others cannot be compelled to remove such content, except when copyright infringement is involved.
Ripoff Report, and a number of other websites, have created a niche industry based on the Section 230 protection. Such sites invite people to anonymously post reviews and comments. In practice, Ripoff Report and other similar sites almost universally elicit only negative “reviews,” and simply being mentioned on these types of sites automatically confers some reputation damage because of the website’s name. It’s not named “Independent Reports” or “Consumer Reports” or anything neutral — thus, everyone listed therein must be a “Ripoff.”
I’ve mentioned that Ripoff Report will not remove content, but you can pay large fees for “VIP Arbitration” services where they might remove mentions of you, de-optimize your page so it does not rank prominently in search results, and/or post editorial commentary indicating the things written about you might not be accurate.
Since they will not remove it if someone defames you on their site, one would think that the most effective recourse would be to obtain a court order that identifies the pages as being defamatory, and then petition Google to remove the Ripoff Report page from their search results. (Google recently seemed to suspend removals of defamatory content for a period, but they have been resuming some removals once more.)
For years now, a number of defamation victims have gotten relief through Google’s voluntary removal process, after they obtained properly executed court orders specifying defamatory URLs. Both businesses and individuals that have been severely damaged by malicious and dishonest things written about them on Ripoff Report have been able to make such content virtually disappear by asking Google to de-index the pages from their search results.
I don’t have access to statistics, but from the samples of court orders I have seen in the past handful of years, Ripoff Report pages de-indexed through Google’s take-down process could easily number in the thousands.
The Google de-indexation effect
Ripoff Report could not possibly like this situation. The site and its operators have long positioned themselves as protectors of free speech and consumer sentiment, all the while refusing to remove some content that is demonstrably dishonest and highly destructive to businesses and individuals.
But Ripoff Report is a money-making enterprise, and the situations created by the Section 230 protections have left a void where defamation victims often are left with little or no legal recourse. Ripoff Report exploits this lacuna for profit. And, as with many online businesses, traffic levels to a website correlate directly with revenues. Higher familiarity with the RipoffReport.com brand results in more people using it to vent complaints, which results in more “VIP Arbitration” fees and in larger amounts of revenue derived from the advertisements found on the site’s pages.
Undoing the de-indexation of page URLs
In recent months, Ripoff Report has apparently instituted a few changes in an to attempt to undo the de-indexation of its pages in Google due to court-ordered take-down requests.
Many of Google’s systems use page URLs as the unique identifiers for web pages. Google’s systems basically rely upon the URL as a sort of page ID code. As such, when Google decides to remove a page from its search results, it does so based on the page’s URL. (Google can, of course, also remove pages based on a common domain name, but I believe the take-downs for copyright infringement, and for other reasons such as defamation and porn revenge removal requests, are all based on individual page URLs.)
The weakness of Google’s page removal system is that it’s reliant upon fairly stable page URLs. Because if an URL changes, then its web page abruptly has a whole new ID code — one that is not suppressed from search results.
Ripoff Report has apparently figured out that by changing some characters in de-indexed page URLs, they can magically restore their pages to appear in the search results once more. I’ve now heard reports from a number of attorneys whose dismayed clients have contacted them when previously de-indexed Ripoff Report pages abruptly began appearing and ranking prominently in Google once more.
A porn revenge client that I have occasionally assisted on a pro bono basis contacted me again recently, in large part because a couple of Ripoff Report pages that had previously been de-indexed in Google have begun ranking once more for her name searches. The apparent reason? Ripoff Report has changed a number of characters in the URL.
Now, it’s not unusual for large websites to publish changes to page URLs. There can be many reasons for page URL changes to occur. It’s possible for only scattered pages on a site to see URL changes — such as if a programmer alters how only a few characters are encoded, for instance. Indeed, it seems that Ripoff Report has optimized for mobile not long ago, and that this effort also spawned a large number of duplicates of existing pages, each with a mobile-version URL. (Example: “http://m.ripoffreport.com/reports/…”) The mobile optimization produced one source of duplicate pages that got indexed anew, but it was not the only cause of previously de-indexed pages that have become reintroduced into search.
Let us not kid ourselves — I believe that Ripoff Report has intentionally been changing page URLs to elude Google’s page removal processes.
When de-indexed page URLs began shifting to new locations, Ripoff Report also began posting a paragraph at the beginning of de-indexed articles stating that there has been legal action and that a court order was obtained. But it also questioned the legitimacy of court orders. In and of itself, this statement wouldn’t necessarily be a big deal, except that it’s happening in context with the page URL changes. Here’s an example of what Ripoff Report is posting at the beginning of de-indexed articles now:
[blockquote]Editor’s Comment: Ripoff Report believes in transparency and the more information the better. In this instance there has been court action regarding this subject Report. We believe it important to note that not all Court Orders are alike. Many court orders are absolutely legitimate. However, sometimes courts enter orders based upon default which typically means that the defendant didn’t show up. Sometimes a defendant won’t show up because they didn’t even get notice of the case proceedings in the first place and other times defendants may not show up because they don’t necessarily have the knowledge and/or the financial resources to fight. Still, in other instances, a defendant may simply appear only to stipulate (settle) the case by agreeing to stipulate to a court order because they are being bullied by the plaintiff and whether what they said was true or not, they just want the matter to go away so they can move on with life and make the plaintiff go away. We are providing you all with the same information so that you may be more informed and, coupled with any additional research you feel is necessary, make your own informed decision regarding the validity of this Report. As always, we encourage our readers to do their homework and not just rely on one single source for information. Google, through the Lumen Database, has provided the following document relating to this subject Report: …[/blockquote]
As you may have encountered in Google’s search results at some point, when there has been a legal action to de-index content from Google, they will post a notice at the bottom of the associated keyword search results page linking to the Lumen Database:
[blockquote]In response to a legal request submitted to Google, we have removed 8 result(s) from this page. If you wish, you may read more about the request at LumenDatabase.org.[/blockquote]
The fact that Ripoff Report has now added this editor’s comment in conjunction with Google’s notice of legal action and removal of identified search results is telling. It seems clear that Ripoff Report is now monitoring either for the notices posted on Google search results or for mentions of Ripoff Report URLs in the Lumen Database itself. And, once they find a mention of a take-down, they post links to the legal documents from the associated Ripoff Report pages.
Outing reports’ authors
What’s ironic about the situation is that by doing this, Ripoff Report is further “outing” the identities of some of the authors of their reports. This because the links to the court documents inevitably expose the authors. Ripoff Report has long tried to represent that they are nobly dedicated to free speech and safeguarding contributors’ rights to anonymity, but this practice goes against that stated goal.
Ripoff Report’s actions have exposed a serious flaw in Google’s page removal system. Since the URL is used as a page ID, webmasters have the ability to make up a completely new ID for any page that has gotten de-indexed. Obviously, the operators of web pages that get removed may not want this to happen, and it’s all too easy for them to circumvent it through endless URL alterations.
Ripoff Report’s response
I invited Ripoff Report to comment on whether they are changing page URLs to enable their pages to once again be available in search after Google has removed them due to defamation court orders. And I also asked them about how they are now revealing their authors’ names in some instances, despite how their site states that it will not do so unless legally required.
Interestingly, Anette J. Beebe, the in-house counsel for Ripoff Report, responded to my question about the URL change without directly answering it affirmatively or negatively. Instead, she pointed out that it is common for sites to change URLs and that Ripoff Report has done so at various times in its history. For instance, she provided a legacy URL such as this (we replaced ID numbers and subject names in the links they provided to us in order to avoid adding link weight to the articles):
Which later became this after site URL changes:
Of course, this is not the type of change I am referring to in the current situations. Any SEO professional could compare those example URLs and expect those types of modifications over time in order to better optimize a site for search. Keywords specific to the article page were introduced (“name-of-company”…) while some less-valuable characters were removed (“.htm”), and topic categorization keywords were also added (“/furniture-furnishings”). I expect the modifications shown in their past examples may well have been normal, expectable changes in evolving the site to function more effectively in search. But some of the current changes do not suggest such a commonplace explanation.
I expect the modifications shown in their past examples may well have been normal. But some of the current changes do not suggest such a commonplace explanation.
For example, here is a URL formatted exactly like the one involving my porn revenge client which Google had removed a few years ago:
And, here is the more recent URL that her attorney requested that Google remove again:
If you are looking closely, you’ll see that the most recent URL differs by just a single character — it is one “l” shorter. I’ve worked in IT for over 20 years, and I’d be hard-put to find any reasonable explanation for this URL change other than an effort to avoid the de-indexing. The URLs appear to include the article titles as part of the keyword sequence, along with a numerical page ID number at the end.
Beebe’s additional comments seem to implicitly acknowledge the motivation that I am ascribing to this: the recent URL changes have likely been done in order to elude Google’s content removal actions.
Read on to see what I mean. When asked about this, Ms. Beebe responded by soap-boxing some about how fraudulently obtained court orders are a big problem:
“Second, as for our reasons for updating URLs, there are many, but I’ll just address the one I think you’re most interested in based upon your questions — the idea that ROR is somehow trying to evade the legal system by changing URLs which, of course, has the effect of restoring de-indexed URLs. Let me be clear — fraudulently obtained court orders are a VERY serious (and growing) problem, not just for Ripoff Report but for all websites that host potentially negative speech.”
It would seem that this response is providing an argument for why they should do such URL changes. Without directly stating a “yes” or “no”, Ripoff Report seems to be conveying that if we changed URLs to restore our de-indexed pages in search results, we would be justified in doing so, because some removal orders out there were obtained through defrauding courts.
Beebe went on to provide a description and a link to a blog post by attorney Paul Levy who, along with Eugene Volokh, had investigated a number of questionable court-ordered content removals. He wrote about how the operator of a black-hat reputation firm had settled lawsuits brought against him and agreed to get the fraudulently obtained court orders vacated. As I described in my earlier article, “Paradigm shift: Has Google suspended defamation removals?”, there has indeed been abuse of process on the part of some online reputation agencies and attorneys.
If a particular URL removal was later revealed to be unjustified due to a fraudulent court order, then certainly I would imagine that Google would be open to restoring it. But I would imagine the proper process would be for a site to send Google a request to restore the URL, rather than attempting to manipulate and dodge Google’s systems.
Since Ripoff Report is not directly agreeing to or denying my assertion that they have changed URLs for this purpose, it’s unclear how they’ve determined when to use the URL change technique. Based on my knowledge of the porn revenge client’s perfectly legitimate case, it looks like Ripoff Report isn’t confining these changes to cases in which the court process was abused.
Ripoff Report’s counsel went on to respond to my query about why they are now linking to court order documents that reveal the identity of article authors, when their expressed policy is not to disclose authors’ names unless legally required. Their response was:
“Among other things, Ripoff Report’s promise to protect an author’s anonymity is intended to protect companies from unmasking the real names of people who post reviews about them. That has not changed. However, once a company, through a proper subpoena or otherwise obtains an author’s name, there is nothing for Ripoff Report to protect anymore. In fact, if it got to a court order, it’s already part of a public record — the court record. Further, you are assuming that all of the court order documents actually name the real author as a defendant. Fake court orders, or John Doe default orders, aren’t necessarily naming the real author so, in those cases, the real author’s anonymity is still protected.”
So, when the author’s name is unmasked elsewhere, Ripoff Report no longer feels bound by its own promise to site users to protect an author’s anonymity. I think this is pretty assumptive and disingenuous.
It’s troubling that Ripoff Report on one hand states, “Sometimes a defendant won’t show up because they didn’t even get notice of the case proceedings in the first place and other times defendants may not show up because they don’t necessarily have the knowledge and/or the financial resources to fight.”
But, on the other hand, they will further expose the articles’ authors based on court documents, even though they are claiming that some of these court orders were baseless.
So, which is it? If you believe the court order is valid, then stop posting additional materials on the content on your website defaming the victims (adding the court order content is undeniably an optimization). Or, if you believe your articles’ authors, stop spreading their names further. You cannot have things both ways and pretend to some sort of integrity.
There’s been some improvement
Now, in defending Ripoff Report, Beebe also related some other areas where the site has evolved, pointing out that they will redact victims’ names in some instances now:
“Notwithstanding the foregoing, in [an] effort to help address some issues we were seeing Ripoff Report has been implementing and testing different policies. For example, with our Court Order Policy, as long as the order complies with the same, Ripoff Report will redact out the specifically identified information that was found by the court to be false and defamatory and place in an Editorial Comment that explains the situation. If there are cases of pure harassment/bullying/stalking, and we obtain enough information (often accompanied by police report and/or other information) where we, within our discretion perceive it as such, then we will update the posting under our test/pilot perceived harassment policy … Indeed, I believe we have come a long way from where we used to be in the last two and a half years.”
Grudgingly, I have to agree: Ripoff Report has improved in this respect and is a little less icky now. They redacted the name of my porn revenge victim client from the article her harasser had posted on the site as a real case in point. This was a good move and is a move in the right direction. I commend them on doing this.
But, unfortunately for the porn revenge victim, Google had not updated its search results to exclude her name from appearing in cached versions of the page, nor had it stopped the article from appearing as a result for searches for her name (which wouldn’t need to be done when the page was deindexed), so when Ripoff Report changed its URLs, the article defaming her abruptly reappeared high in the search results. So, while they helped her on one hand by removing her name, they caused her harm once more when they changed a bunch of their URLs to undo Google’s take-downs.
If Ripoff Report wants to be perceived as a protector of consumers and underdogs, they need to go about things in the right way. They would need to petition Google to reinstate specific URLs where there was indication of a fraudulent court process, rather than using a crafty, black-hat approach to sidestepping take-downs. If they had chosen to only request specific URLs be reinstated, my porn revenge client would not have been damaged yet again by the machinery of the Ripoff Report website.
Google needs to take action
If Google does not want their policing actions to be negated, they clearly need to develop something to stop it.
For one thing, disclosing court-ordered removals via the Lumen Database and in notices posted in the related search results is perhaps not the best idea. This is now alerting bad players in the online ecosystem that action has been taken, enabling them to try to execute countermeasures. In the cases of a number of defamation victims, it’s also something of a jerk move. On one hand, Google is saying, “We agree that this defamation is so bad that even though we are not legally required to, we are removing it from our search results.” On the other hand, they’re then posting links to the Lumen Database where the very same links are listed.
Yes, I get that this is great when you’re talking about governments trying to suppress free speech, or when SLAPP lawsuits may be at play. But I do not think it’s cool to be re-exposing the very damaging and noncontroversial stuff that you’ve agreed to take down in the first place.
Right this minute, as I’m writing this, I’m viewing the Lumen Database entry of that porn revenge client of mine that I mentioned earlier. When those Ripoff Report pages about her reappeared in Google, her attorney submitted removal requests to Google once again last month. I’ll redact identifiable names and slightly alter this sentence from the first paragraph of that court order so that you can understand what it is that I’m talking about:
It is clear to the Court that the Defendant, _______, has engaged in an extensive campaign to defame, harass, stalk, impersonate, and invade the privacy of Ms. _____. The Defendant’s unlawful actions have placed her in danger for her safety.
In fact, that defendant did some substantial jail time for what he did, which included criminal activities that went well beyond a mere online reputation attack. We know he posted the damaging items because the police found the materials when they subpoenaed the contents of his family’s home and inspected the files on his computers there.
Remember how Google publicly declared that they would remove porn revenge for victims without requiring court orders? Well, this victim had to get a court order because her ordeal happened prior to Google’s policy. Also, my understanding is that porn revenge victims can directly request removals of indexed images and videos, but they still need a court order when text is involved. (When my client was victimized, her harasser very unhelpfully published both written material and images throughout the web.)
Using URLs is a problem
Google using page URLs as IDs is clearly a serious problem when it comes to removing content from search results. Google likely needs to turn its innovative development to this area, as it has with spammers, and come up with something effective that cannot be so easily negated.
This problem should concern more than victims of defamation and porn revenge. This issue is also coming up where DMCA copyrighted content removal requests are concerned. Content pirates can use the very same means to dodge removal enforcement procedures.
Google probably needs to evolve toward a removal system that is based upon pattern recognition to identify and suppress pages that are detected to contain disallowed materials. Why should victims have to repeatedly come back with more requests to remove the stuff that Google previously agreed to remove? The costs for victims seem to keep mounting over time, and they have to maintain an ongoing vigilance for the reappearance of stuff that they thought had already been resolved.
Sure, I recognize the inherent issues and complexities with a pattern-based system, but I suspect Google has the technical ability to implement such a system. Perhaps it could be a hybrid of a pattern-recognition system combined with information on domains and their URLs.
One final note — one wonders if Ripoff Report has finally pushed the envelope so far that they may be undermining the immunity they have enjoyed thus far. Section 230 protects mere distributors of content, but one could argue that Ripoff Report is now doing more than just facilitating user-generated content. By adding commentary to a Ripoff Report page to imply that the court order regarding it might not be valid or trustworthy, they perhaps begin to be a content author or a collaborator with the author rather than just a publishing platform.
Note: I also reached out to Google and the Lumen Database for comments about these issues, and at the time of publication, they had not responded. If they do provide any comments, I’ll update this article.
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