The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Google still deindexing some material found by courts to be defamatory—but it's being more skeptical


An article at Search Engine Land on Dec. 30 reported, under the title "Paradigm shift: Has Google suspended defamation removals?":

A number of attorneys who specialize in online defamation/libel cases have reported to me that Google has recently suspended its longstanding, informal policy of removing URLs from US search results that are specified in duly executed court orders. This poses a major paradigm shift for many victims of online reputation attacks.

Beginning around August or September of this year, a number of attorneys from across the US began receiving blanket denials after submitting requests to remove defamatory content from Google's search results.

Since at least 2009, Google has had an informal policy of accepting many removal requests when accompanied by a properly executed court order specifying defamatory/libelous content at specific URLs. I've personally seen a number of cases where hundreds and even thousands of URLs have been submitted with court orders, and Google has removed those URLs from search results.

But they've now stopped. Not for every single request, but for a sufficient number that it's clear something has changed.

Techdirt also picked this up, describing this as "Google seems to have stopped responding to defamation lawsuit court orders." That characterization, though, appears to be something of an overstatement.

Instead, my contact at Google tells me, Google is still deindexing material based on court orders, but it is looking closely at such orders to determine whether everything seems legit. One can see why Google would want to look closely, given the evidence that injunctions have been gotten against nonexistent defendants, attempts to use allegedly defamatory comments as means to deindex professional news articles, injunctions that call for the deindexing of official government documents that clearly weren't written by the defendants, and allegations that other injunctions involve collusive lawsuits against defendants who weren't actually responsible for the allegedly defamatory posts. At the same time, many of the orders that Google receives were indeed legitimately obtained, though it's often hard to tell for sure which are which. (Recall that Google is generally not the target of such U.S. orders and isn't bound to comply with them—the orders are against the alleged authors of the defamation—but Google has been voluntarily deindexing pages in response to some such orders.)

For more details on some of the suspicious circumstances involved in some such court orders submitted to Google, see these posts.