If There's A Defamatory Review On Yelp, Is It Google's Job To Hide It?

from the always-a-way dept

One point that we keep trying to make in the various debates about content moderation and Section 230 in particular is that the second you give people a legal method through which they can seek to remove unflattering information from the internet, they will use it... and abuse it. We've seen it for decades with the DMCA, certainly, which is regularly abused to try to remove unflattering information even if it has nothing whatsoever to do with copyright. We've also seen it in the context of fake defamation lawsuits.

Of course, it also opens up some other scenarios as well, which Yelp recently discovered when Google alerted the company that one of its pages, about an auction house in Knoxville, Tennessee, was going to be delisted from Google's index. Why? Well, according to the takedown letter that was sent to Google, by Wray Williams, the owner of the auction house, the statements on the website were found to be defamatory.

The Permanent Injunction that is attached covers the defamatory remarks which include all of the content that was posted by defendant, Kim Babel, on multiple Websites. The last 2 paragraphs of page 2 of the Injunction cover removing postings and Kim Babel being prohibited from further postings or republishing the defamatory statements.

And, indeed, the takedown letter includes an injunction issued by the court, back in 2012. The injunction applies to the person who allegedly posted the content (apparently Kim Babel), saying that she is enjoined from reposting the content to RipoffReport. There is then a handwritten addition saying "or any other online forum" though it's not entirely clear who wrote that.

It might be the judge. I'm no handwriting expert, but the handwriting does look maybe similar to the judge's handwriting entering the date at the end.

So, if we accept that a jury found the defendant to have defamed the company, you can understand how there's an interesting conundrum here. Contrary to what the anti-Section 230 crowd insist, most websites, including Google, do take it seriously when there are court orders regarding defamatory content, and they do seek to deal with it. And yet... there have to be some questions raised about this result. First of all, the injunction is against the woman who was found by the court to have posted the reviews. It talks about RipoffReport, but not Yelp (though there is the hand-scrawled message on the injunction).

But, as it stands, anyone searching for this auction house on Google, will not be shown the Yelp page (which has two reviews, both of them just one star). To Wray Williams credit, he responds to both of the reviews, though with the second one he does so to point out that the review was ruled to be defamatory. If you search for the same business on YouTube, you see that Google Review has 30 reviews with an average rating of 4.8 out of 5 stars. Google will also show you reviews from Facebook, which are also all positive.

So, in the end, I'm not sure what's the best result here. If the content is truly defamatory, then it seems reasonable to ask for it to be taken down. But it seems that the auction house should have sent the request to Yelp, rather than to Google. Yelp might then be in a position to review the court ruling and determine whether or not it wanted to pull down the review -- which it very well might. And, in that scenario, then people searching on Google would still also be able to see the Yelp reviews.

It does seem at least marginally curious that there are so few Yelp reviews, and so many Google reviews. In my experience the reverse is often true, though perhaps that's changing. Perhaps if the auction house hadn't nuked the entire page from Google there would actually be more Yelp reviews for the auction house (and perhaps those would have been more positive).

The larger issue, to me, once again is what is the remedy for the situation. And when we're dealing with content on other sites (such as Yelp), it seems dangerous to put that issue on Google to decide. I understand the basic thinking behind it -- given how much traffic Google drives. But also, it seems worrisome that Google's only response is a sledge hammer approach that removes all access to that page. Perhaps it "feels" right in this scenario in which there are just those two negative reviews, and one has been adjudicated as defamatory -- but what if there were a bunch of reviews, and the vast majority of them were legit (good or bad)? The fact that this results in Google just removing the entire page from its index, feels like going too far.

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Filed Under: defamation, intermediaries, reviews, search, takedowns, third parties
Companies: google, yelp


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 21 May 2021 @ 1:46pm

    Uhh, no?

    If the content is ruled to be defamatory you go after the person who wrote it and/or the site that's hosting it, offhand the only reasons I can think of to go after Google instead is because it's easier and they're less likely to contest it, neither of which are valid excuses.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 May 2021 @ 1:50pm

      Re: Uhh, no?

      Google is a distributor, and the most likely republisher.

      They're liable in other countries.

      What's the point of allowing perpetual harm to someone?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Stephen T. Stone (profile), 21 May 2021 @ 1:55pm

        They’re liable in other countries.

        Other countries have shittier defamation laws than the ones in the United States. For what reason should the U.S. “open up the libel laws” (as a politician I’m sure you support once put it) and make basically anyone responsible for defamation if they so much as read the defamatory speech?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Rocky, 21 May 2021 @ 3:32pm

          Re:

          Some countries actually have sane libel laws.

          For example, some have the rule that if the content is moderated, it's the platform that is liable but if the content is unmoderated or moderated after posting, it's the poster that is liable - even if the poster happens to be anonymous. Now, repeating the defamatory content on other platforms or re-posting it can actually confer liability per the rules above. A search-engine indexing defamatory content doesn't confer liability for the simple reason that there's no one in the loop who decided that the defamatory content should be indexed, it just indexed everything within reason. It's all about who is actually doing what that confers liability.

          Also, if brainy want to talk about who's liable for what in other jurisdictions there are countries that have laws that would most likely mean jail-time for him because of things he have posted here. Just consider the shit he has made up and accused Techdirt and Mike for which would be considered to be defamatory in a number of countries. There's a reason the US passed the SPEECH act in 2010 to make foreign libel-judgements due to libel-tourism unenforceable in the US.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            nasch (profile), 23 May 2021 @ 7:09am

            Re: Re:

            if the content is moderated, it's the platform that is liable but if the content is... moderated after posting, it's the poster that is liable

            What do you mean, if the platform decides not to let it post it at all, they're liable, but if they let it go up and then take it down, they're not?

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Rocky, 23 May 2021 @ 9:25am

              Re: Re: Re:

              No, I mean if they vet the posts first they are liable ie they moderate all content before publishing it. So if they allow something defamatory through they are liable for that content.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • icon
                nasch (profile), 23 May 2021 @ 10:46am

                Re: Re: Re: Re:

                I see. I suppose that would have to be categorized as sane, but I would say it's misguided, as all it will do is ensure that nobody will vet content ahead of time (or at least doing so would be insane under such a regimen). So it is at best useless, and at worst discouraging something that should at least be permitted.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                • identicon
                  Rocky, 23 May 2021 @ 1:12pm

                  Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

                  Is it misguided? Not really if you want curated content which is the whole point of vetting submissions first. Compare it to how Techdirt allow submissions from guest writers. Or any other site that want to focus on one particular topic.

                  Of course, that doesn't mean there cannot be a comment section, just like how it is here.

                  reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                • icon
                  Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 24 May 2021 @ 12:26am

                  Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

                  "I would say it's misguided, as all it will do is ensure that nobody will vet content ahead of time"

                  The fact that no one vets your speech ahead of time is more or less the norm of free speech. It's only after you post some extra ripe bullshit that you get to enjoy the tender caress of the banhammer. And this is how it should be, really.

                  Hence why if your input is edited before being read the entity doing the editing is choosing to publish, while the platform which allows open comments is moderating when they post-facto remove posts and swing that banhammer.

                  A key tell of alt-right asshats is that they always try to conflate these two modes of operation. If you see anyone pushing the view that google is a publisher that argument is certifiably a Stormfront/Modern GOP talking point.

                  reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • icon
                Toom1275 (profile), 23 May 2021 @ 12:22pm

                Re: Re: Re: Re:

                That assumes that a) the content is defamatory and b) there's a magic way to know such.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                • identicon
                  Rocky, 23 May 2021 @ 1:14pm

                  Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

                  Of course, and what is defamatory is usually entirely dependent on what jurisdiction you live in. And the magic way to know what is defamatory is to use the court system to decide it.

                  reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 24 May 2021 @ 12:21am

            Re: Re:

            "Just consider the shit he has made up and accused Techdirt and Mike for which would be considered to be defamatory in a number of countries."

            Most countries with sane libel laws wouldn't be as open to libel suits as the US because civil suits require far harder a burden of proof and have far less incentive.

            I can imagine any number of exclamations old Baghdad Bob has made in the past which would carry actual criminal charges in much of Europe, however. And if he has his way with section 230 one silver lining we'll all be enjoying is that he'll at least never be able to post a single word online ever again.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 21 May 2021 @ 3:38pm

        Re: Re: Uhh, no?

        A link from a search isn't republishing.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 24 May 2021 @ 12:18am

        Re: Re: Uhh, no?

        "They're liable in other countries."

        They really aren't. In other countries an offended party can ask for a takedown of the post, but before such an argument is made, Google has no liability visavi what users post on the board.

        Also, you missed the entire OP, it seems. This was a Yelp review. Google's only part in this was to include the findings in a query.

        You are metaphorically arguing that the library mustn't just hide the book which offends you, it must remove all mention of it from the imdb index.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 May 2021 @ 1:49pm

    Section 230 immunizes against the secondary harm caused by search engines amplifying sites who certainly don't discourage people from speaking bluntly.

    The parts of Section 230 that harm individuals or businesses are what needs to be fixed. Distributor liability was well-recognized in the US (which is why 230 was passed), and still is in the rest of the world.

    Making it so someone hating you on 4Chan can't google-bomb you to harm you in your daily life is not asking much.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Stephen T. Stone (profile), 21 May 2021 @ 1:54pm

      230 doesn’t harm individuals or businesses. People do. Go after them. If you can’t find them, tough shit — but being angry at that fact is no reason to attack people, tools, and companies who aren’t responsible for defaming you.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Gwiz (profile), 21 May 2021 @ 4:24pm

      Re:

      Section 230 immunizes against the secondary harm caused by search engines amplifying sites who certainly don't discourage people from speaking bluntly.

      You know what else "amplifies people speaking bluntly"? Microphones, megaphones and PA systems. Are you going to sue the manufacturers of those items too?
       

      The parts of Section 230 that harm individuals or businesses are what needs to be fixed.

      Which parts are those, exactly? Have you actually read 47 U.S. Code § 230?
       

      Distributor liability was well-recognized in the US (which is why 230 was passed), and still is in the rest of the world.

      Um, no. That is not correct. Section 230 came about because we had conflicting rulings where one provider (Compuserve) was considered a newsstand and another (Prodigy) was considered a newspaper publisher with the only difference being that Prodigy moderated their users' content. So basically, if you moderated your users' content, you could be held liable for that content. Congress passed 230 because they wanted to encourage providers and platforms to moderate the content without fear of being held responsible for someone else's speech. Without 230, platforms would not be moderating their user's content or most likely, nobody would host user-generated content at all.
       

      Making it so someone hating you on 4Chan can't google-bomb you to harm you in your daily life is not asking much.

      Taking personal responsibility for your own actions isn't asking too much either. If you choose to piss someone off on 4Chan while using your real life credentials, that is pretty much on you, my friend.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Stephen T. Stone (profile), 21 May 2021 @ 5:48pm

        If you choose to piss someone off on 4Chan while using your real life credentials, that is pretty much on you, my friend.

        Or to put it a different way: Don’t taunt the wasp hive unless you want to get stung.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 May 2021 @ 6:28pm

      Re:

      Making it so someone hating you on 4Chan can't google-bomb you to harm you in your daily life is not asking much.

      As usual, John Smith's gambit is to rely on his stereotypical bogeyman of the 4chan user: someone who he thinks is some deplorable that still relies on parental support in a dank basement, but somehow still wields enough anonymous influence to singlehandedly ruin lives.

      Never mind the fact that even during the anti-Scientology heydays of Anonymous, the disorganized mob was still very much indignant over the memes they'd pursue. Even deserving targets were not considered purely because a lack of direction was the main point of the group. Why hack the RIAA when making swastikas on HabboHotel was more hilarious?

      Funny that John Smith keeps spouting about random Russian hackers and 4chan users from cesspools of the Internet that he'd certainly never be in. Almost like he's familiar with the tactic and has attempted it a few times...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 22 May 2021 @ 2:00am

        Re: Re:

        Jhon's goals appear to be twofold:

        1) Like other career fraudsters before him, he wants to falsely accuse victims of his email list scam of "defamation" when they truthfully warn others of him, to keep his future victims in the dark. He erroneously sees Section 230 as the problem.

        2) Seeing as Jhon's obsessed with defamation-for-money schemes, suing for "defamation", and the fact that he only text on the entirety of Techdirt that borders on defamatory is Jhon's assertions that Mike is part of some shadowy conspiracy, the likely conclusion to draw from that is that Jhon is likely hoping that in a world without Section 230, he can get rich by anonymously posting "defamation" that he then sues the innocent victim platforms over.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 22 May 2021 @ 4:48am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Look back at the article where Mike shared his experiences being sued in 2018 - under the pseudonym My_Name_Here, John was desperately praying for the charges to stick. Small wonder he and Hamilton ended up writing pretty trashy fanfiction together.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      wereisjessicahyde (profile), 22 May 2021 @ 11:23am

      Re:

      You don't even know what Google-bombing is. Google-bombing is an SEO technique to drive up a website in search listings?

      You're not a website are you? As always you're completely and utterly wrong about everything.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 May 2021 @ 2:10pm

    Well, I certainly think it shouldn't be. But Google has more or less willingly taken on a role of curator for the internet, for better or for worse (mostly worse). As much as they manipulate search results on behalf of various interests already, continued demands for more are to be expected.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    BoKnows, 21 May 2021 @ 2:11pm

    No!

    Defamation is accurate. Slander and libel already have laws protecting them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 May 2021 @ 11:50pm

      Re: No!

      That is like saying calling you a moron is violence and it is accurate because under the law, only assault, battery, manslaughter, and murder. Therefore there should be laws against it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    christenson, 21 May 2021 @ 2:15pm

    Hypotheticals made real

    Me, reading reviews, especially bad ones, I want to know the story ... anybody can put down 1 or 5 stars for zero effort.

    Here, suppose we have a review that says "Vendor did not actually ship the product but took my money anyway", on yelp, but it is a lie, so it's in fact defamatory.

    I think I'd prefer maximum sunlight: to find on yelp the original, the vendor's response, and free links to the official copies of the ruling and the case docket. Google, as indexer, indexes however it sees fit.

    As a third party, trying to evaluate whether to use this vendor,the thing that I would like to see the most is the true identity and affiliations of the speakers -- we have good reviews, and bad reviews, and a vendor response, but just what motivates the otherwise random reviewers? What if they all follow Alex Jones?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Koby (profile), 21 May 2021 @ 2:33pm

    Side Step

    What if you don't use Google search anymore? I haven't tracked the search engine numbers over the years, but it appears that some newcomers are starting to emerge, such as DuckDuckGo. If Google loses its dominance in this area, litigators that attempt to block content by going straight to Google could find that they only prevent a portion of the search results. They might then begin to realize that they're better served by cutting off the content on the site where it's posted, which would seem to be the most appropriate location.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 23 May 2021 @ 7:12am

      Re: Side Step

      It's happened, folks. Koby made a reasonable comment on a story about content moderation.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 23 May 2021 @ 11:05pm

      Re: Side Step

      "They might then begin to realize that they're better served by cutting off the content on the site where it's posted"

      Unlikely. What's more likely is that they start attacking sites that, while popular, don't have the cash reserves and lawyers available that Google does, and more stuff gets pointlessly taken down from searches. Especially if the website itself is not hosted in the US, while the search engines are.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 24 May 2021 @ 12:47am

      Re: Side Step

      "...but it appears that some newcomers are starting to emerge, such as DuckDuckGo."

      Starting to emerge? Starting?

      What rock have you been living under for the last twelve years, Koby? DDG has been around since 2008 and became the instant go-to for anyone who wanted or needed their queries to remain anonymous and untracked.

      "If Google loses its dominance in this area, litigators that attempt to block content by going straight to Google could find that they only prevent a portion of the search results."

      Google hasn't had search engine "dominance" for ten years. They've been a preferred brand. Much in the same manner that if GM were to nosedive it doesn't mean the US public is suddenly bereft of choice when it comes to car purchase.

      Google still has niches much in the same way Facebook does where it's still a dominant actor but this could be fixed with forcing platform interoperability.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Louis, 21 May 2021 @ 2:38pm

    Orders by the court

    I'm not that familiar with the court system in the US as I'm not from there, but couldn't google just reject this request from the courts because it doesn't have standing? If that's not the case, couldn't I persuade a judge to issue an order for Bill Gates (or any rich person) to give me a few million $ as a way to get money?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Nathan F (profile), 21 May 2021 @ 3:11pm

    I would be ignoring the "or any other online forum" part. That is supposed to be an official document from the court, you can't just go adding handwritten parts to it wherever you want. Hell, Kim Babel can go and handwrite "for 6 months" right behind that line if she wanted. If the court wanted that part in there then they can and should damn well retype the document, print, sign, and seal it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 21 May 2021 @ 3:35pm

    But Google is the interwebs!!!
    And it existing in the index, even if its been removed from Yelp! means people might still see 2 bad reviews.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 May 2021 @ 6:39pm

    Google ought

    to be saying something like

    "You're sending us that injunction because?"

    Send it to Yelp and the actual user who made the review. Google has nothing to do with it. Same kind of BS that the EU is doing with "Right to be forgotten." News flash people GOOGLE IS NOT THE INTERNET. If you want content removed, remove it from the server hosting it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 May 2021 @ 10:20am

      Re: Google ought

      But enough people still believe that Google is the internet that delisting is effective for hiding information.

      It's possible they did send it to Yelp first, but it was not impressed by the handwritten additions to the document.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 May 2021 @ 6:55pm

    Empty Calorie Internet Reviews

    Given the sample of this auction house's reviews, I find almost no value in them.

    Google reviews lists 13 reviews, for an average score of 4.7. Of the reviewers that have left more than one Google Review somewhere, only two had ever left anything other than a 5 star review anywhere. (And the one Google Review that was a one-star wasn't related to their business per se).

    If everyone only ever leaves 5 star reviews, why are they better than 3 star reviews? If the review doesn't say "this company does X better (or worse) than elsewhere", why should I even bother reading them?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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    Anonymous Coward, 25 May 2021 @ 11:57pm

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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    Anonymous Coward, 26 May 2021 @ 12:15am

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