The Volokh Conspiracy

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How a former Sony chairman erased an article based on his Sony hack e-mails


The robots.txt file from the Gawker site, configured to better hide the article, even after it had been removed.

Eriq Gardner (Hollywood Reporter) has the scoop:

Sony's former chairman [Michael Lynton] has in recent weeks taken advantage of the troubles that have befallen Gawker in the wake of Hulk Hogan's stunning $140 million judgment to have an unflattering story about his family quietly wiped from the site's archives. Not only has the post vanished from the Gawker archive, its administrators have attempted to "de-index" it using special metacode to ensure it isn't cached by search engines nor captured by other digital preservationists.

The story in question was written by Sam Biddle and published on April 21, 2015. The article quoted heavily from Lynton's emails, which became public thanks to a massive intrusion that the Obama Administration attributed to the North Koreans in advance of the release of the Seth Rogen film The Interview. …

After the Gawker Media Group declared bankruptcy [in the wake of the Hulk Hogan verdict] and sold most of its assets to Univision's Fusion Media Group for $135 million last August—with the notable exception of the trademark and archives—Lynton saw an opportunity. In order to clean up its legal liabilities in advance of the sale, Gawker reached several settlements in which it agreed to take down a few of its other controversial stories. … These removals happened thanks to claims officially lodged in court against the debtor. It's unclear how Lynton effectuated a removal. Nothing publicly was filed, although it's possible there were claims filed under seal.

The story came down after the argument came that Biddle's piece was defamatory and an invasion of privacy, though Andrew Celli, the Lynton family attorney, declines to discuss the particulars of who he contacted or how he succeeded in getting the story taken down. (A lawyer for Gawker's administrator didn't respond to a request for comment.) …

Celli called to express concern after I made inquiries about the vanished article with Gawker. He suggested that to even repeat the gist of the original Gawker story would be damaging. He threatened a lawsuit and, referring to the Sony hack, said, "There is a sin at the bottom of this. It's wrong. The source for information is the result of a crime." …

Celli makes his own points how even painting the Gawker story in broad brush strokes creates a false portrait for Lynton's family. … [But u]ltimately, I decided that moves made by public figures to take down information—including by way of robots.txt files—is, well, newsworthy regardless of the origins and that it was important enough to provide at least some detail.

I would add the following detail, just because it's hard to understand the story without it: The original Biddle article asserted (among other things), based on various e-mails, that Michael Lynton had contributed money to a prestigious private university in order to give a family member better access to the university's admission process. I personally don't think this sort of alleged access-buying would be tremendously scandalous: Money can buy you many things, especially at private institutions; and while that may not be great when it comes to institutions that try to be meritocratic, it may be a reasonable compromise, especially given that the money is used to provide valuable resources for teaching, studying and research, including for those not as well-heeled as the payers. It's also possible that the family member would have been admitted in any event. But this sort of alleged hidden access is a subject on which there is rightly a good deal of debate, and the Biddle piece struck me as legitimately newsworthy—made even more so by the further hidden access that led to the removal of the Biddle article.