What can you do when you find content about yourself online that you think is defamation? How do you address it? Is it possible to have it removed from search results or from the web altogether?
Many times, individuals and businesses contact Google to request the removal of controversial or illegal content from its search results and other services, such as Google Groups, Google Maps and Blogspot, says Mike Yang, Google's managing product counsel. The Chilling Effects Clearinghouse documents the countless requests Google receives to remove allegedly defamatory content from its services.
It's no wonder so many people who are concerned about their reputations go directly to Google: The search giant holds the largest share of all searches on the Internet-nearly 63 percent in December 2008-according to Nielsen Online.
In fact, however, Google hesitates to adjudicate defamation disputes. "Given the scale we operate on, we're not in a position to know what the facts are or to figure out whether the content is defamatory or not," says Yang. "That's something the legal system needs to work out."
He recommends that individuals and businesses first contact the owner of the site where the questionable or offensive content appears and to ask the site owner to remove or amend it. Offended parties can also initiate legal action.
If you convince the site owner to take down his or her offending page, you can submit an "outdated or dead" request to Google, says Yang. After Google verifies that the page is in fact gone by re-crawling the site, the page will be removed from the search results, he adds. The cache will be removed, too.
If you can't get the site owner to take down his or her entire page or site, but you can get him or her to modify the page, fill out Google's removal request form and select the option for modified pages.
If Google verifies that the page has indeed been modified, the cache and the snippet of text that ordinarily appears with the resulting link will be removed from the search results, says Yang. Once Google re-crawls the page, the snippet and the cache will be refreshed to reflect the updated content.
If you can't get in touch with the site owner directly because there's no name or contact information on the site, Yang says you can try to get that information from the Internet service provider hosting the site or from the blogging tool hosting the blog. If you don't know what ISP is hosting the site, you can find out using look-up tools on the Internet, such as VeriSign's Whois Search.
Similarly, in the event the individual who posted the offending content did so anonymously, the offended party can file suit (in some states, the legal action may be known as a "John Doe" suit), then his or her attorney can subpoena information about the anonymous user, such as their IP address or actual subscriber information, says Yang.
One of the most important things users can do to manage their reputations online is "to supply true and accurate information about themselves on the Internet," says Yang. "That balances the possibility that what turns up in search results better represents who they are."
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