I Googled Myself and…Oh No!

Privacy2Our law firm gets plenty of calls from people who want to prevent their name from coming up in a “Google search,” especially where there exists a criminal record (that has been expunged but still appears in a Google search) or other embarrassing information available online.

Some progress is being made on this front.  The European Union has ordered that Google institute a process such that a person can have all links referencing his name to be excluded from a Google search for said name.

Google is taking the position that the above only applies to Google’s  European sites, not the main site, google.com, which is governed solely by US law. Google’s position is: “Google.com is a US site regulated by US law. Google provides access to publicly available webpages, but does not control the content of any of the billions of pages currently in the index. Given this fact, and pursuant to Section 230(c) of the Communications Decency Act, Google does not remove allegedly defamatory material from our search results. You will need to work directly with the webmaster of the page in question to have this information removed or changed.”

However, in the US, Google encourages those whose name and reputation have been damaged online via a “Google search” to obtain a court order against the offending site and submit said order online to Google (the process looks easy enough), implying that Google will penalize offending sites (or at least ignore meta data that references the defamed person), which could be significant, given the impracticality of trying to enforce an order against various offending sites.  The latter route  of enforcing an order (asking a judge to remove information from a particular site) is very tricky (but not impossible).  A PA injunction is only valid in PA, of course, so our PA lawyers have virtually no chance of enforcing the order against sites located in other states, unless we retain local counsel.

But if all Google needs is an order against the offending site (to change search results) without our lawyers trying to enforce the order in court against numerous offending sites, for example, then this could be a valuable end-around.  Here is where one would send the court order:


Starting the Process.

So then, how does one obtain a court order (against offending sites) to start the process?  You may proceed in state or federal court, but each provides tradeoffs.  You need to develop a legal theory to prevent the Defendant-website owner from referencing your name online: defamation, false light, invasion of privacy, breach of contract, etc.  You should talk to a lawyer about the theories available.  Then, you need to filed a lawsuit and get it properly served on the Defendant(s).

Both state and federal court require that state where the court is located have jurisdiction over the Defendant, and that the Defendant be properly served with process, which can be difficult when you are trying to serve a shadowy website that has no physical location to which a process server can deliver papers.  In Western Pennsylvania, the courts routinely permit alternate service of process via email other means, if reasonable attempts for service have been unsuccessful.  Our lawyers remain available to seek:

  • Seek a default judgment (assuming the offending site does not respond, but if it does, that could also help the client, because it’s easier for a defendant to remove content than pay lawyers to challenge service/jurisdiction), and

  • Present a walk-through order from a judge, enjoining a site from referencing a person’s name.

This process could be especially helpful for people whose crimes have been expunged, but appear on a Google index in various sites.  Obviously, this will not apply to AOL, Yahoo or Bing searches, but it at least gives a client some recourse to protect his name online concerning Google searches (70% of the search market).  This author has no idea how Google will respond to a request, but it will take the entry of a court order to find out exactly how effective the above strategy may be.

Contact a lawyer to evaluate the best and most cost-effective strategy to employ to prevent how your name appears online.  This above is offered merely as food for thought.  As this area of law remains dynamic and ever changing, the courts (and lawyers) will continue to struggle to find ways to utilize the US legal system (based on the English system of law developed under a monarch) to address modern issues.

Our Legal Practice is limited to Western Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, and the surrounding counties – Beaver, Butler, Washington, Mercer, and Westmoreland), but feel free to contact us if you have any questions.

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