If your reputation has been damaged online, you might be tempted to pay sites to take down the offending content. Columnist Chris Silver Smith explains why that’s not a good idea.
There are many instances where sites purposefully publish content that damages a person’s reputation, including mugshots, arrest records, divorce records and consumer complaints, as well as the more egregious sites for boyfriend/girlfriend “ratings” and revenge porn.
US law doesn’t require publishers of facts and third-party content to remove stuff in many instances, so quite a few sites created a cottage industry around people’s past deeds, and some will remove stuff only if you pay them.
But, should you pay?
Should you pay sites to take down reputation-damaging content?
This is truly one of the dicier issues facing the Online Reputation Management (“ORM”) industry today, and one major reason why the industry is sometimes perceived as tawdry.
To give a quick background, big companies some years ago campaigned to make it so that they weren’t all that responsible for third-party information published via their systems. (This was accomplished by legislation found in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.)
Historically, if one printed something false and defamatory in a newspaper article, the newspaper itself might be held responsible for that. Similarly, publish some libel in a printed book, and the publisher might even be compelled to retract publication of the book. And, in the physical world, publishers might be liable for damages if they were negligent or malicious in publishing something false and damaging.
But, on the internet, this is very different! Providers of blogs and internet service providers may be considered much less vulnerable to legal claims involving defamation. Owners of online forums are not nearly as responsible for what their users post in forum threads.
Also, search engines fall into the category of an “interactive computer service” — they’re not necessarily responsible for what appears in their search results listings. So, to some degree, if you have someone post something about you that’s untrue online, you’re very much out of luck. (There are a number of caveats to this, which I’ll mention later.)
Early on, companies made the argument that internet commerce was a very good thing, and they claimed that if they were required to police and deal with every single thing posted on the net, it would stifle the development of internet commerce, and even kill it off. There’s some degree of truth to this, perhaps, but the human cost of this has been huge, and real.
(It seems a bit ironic that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was later legislated, which allows copyright owners to demand to have their materials removed when posted without their permission — requiring removal by the very same interactive online services that can’t be compelled to remove lies and defamation. So, apparently when removing illegal content like copyright-infringing material is in the best interest of corporations, it doesn’t kill the internet, but removing defamatory stuff would be too difficult and would kill the internet. And, arguably, the scale of copyright infringement instances is likely a few orders of magnitude larger than all the online defamatory attacks, collectively. But, I digress.)
The evolution of the internet, particularly represented by Google’s goal “to make the world’s information searchable,” has reached the point where the publication of even factual data about people and companies is rapid and much more visible than ever before. So true information often appears on various information websites in addition to false and defamatory stuff, causing issues for people.
If you’ve ever been arrested for anything, your mugshot might appear on many different news and information sites — even if all charges were dropped or if you were found innocent in court. If your business was ever sued, fined by a government agency, or otherwise endured some isolated past unflattering instance, those things can live on and be much more directly impactful than they perhaps ought to be.
The resulting paradigm of publishers being mostly not accountable for stuff posted on them created a means for a lot of slimy characters to create what I call thinly veiled extortion schemes as business models.
Certainly, there are on-the-level information websites out there which publish all sorts of information that is vital and useful about people, businesses, and many other topics. But, there’s a subset that focused strictly on engineering themselves to maximize damage to individuals and companies, and to profit off of it.
Parasitic websites publish information from third-party sources and protect themselves with the US law that allows publishers to do this without being required to do anything about it. Then, they cravenly will refuse to remove stuff that devastates people — unless you pay them.
Even in cases where you can essentially prove that what has been said about you is a lie, or is from someone who’s a nut-case, or that the material casts you in a false light (like when an arrest report doesn’t reflect that all charges have been dropped) — even in cases where you have a court order stipulating that the material is libelous — you still can’t compel these sites to remove the stuff!
It sounds like it should be illegal, doesn’t it?!
These companies realized that they could take people’s consternation about the content published about them, and use that as leverage to extract payments from them — in some cases, outrageously huge payments. For some, a few hundred dollars is a takedown fee, while in other cases, it’s a few thousand.
For the unsophisticated targets of these business schemes, when the content appears on multiple websites, they may not even realize they’re paying one company to delete the stuff from multiple locations — this can multiply the toll.
It’s such a distasteful business model that some credit card companies have taken the unusual step of deciding to refuse merchant processing accounts for such companies — they won’t accept charge card purchases provided to those companies.
Perhaps some ad networks will not allow their ads to run on such sites, either, responding to pressure and outrage from those affected. (They really ought not to, just as Jonathan Hochman and Jonah Stein have recommended previously in “Opinion: Why Google Should Crack Down Harder On The Mugshot Extortion Racket.”)
There are also associations that have sprung up to fight against these sorts of sites, like Common Decency, operator of “RipOffReport Victims Unite.” One of their major tenets is to try to dry up the sources of money for the reputation-attack sites.
Unfortunately, once credit card companies began refusing merchant accounts, the reputation-attack sites graduated on to an innovation: making online reputation companies into outright partners of their business models. In at least one instance, such a website — a revenge porn website — also secretly pretended to be an unrelated online reputation agency to dupe people into thinking they were paying a separate entity to help them.
But, I believe the more common scenario is that these reputation repair companies are separate, and they’ve worked out partnership deals and prices on the backend between themselves and the reputation-attack websites. It’s not precisely money laundering, perhaps, but the reputation agencies that have done this are serving as the de facto storefronts for the very companies that are damaging their clients.
Online reputation management agency ethics
I’d argue that it’s quite simply a huge ethical conflict of interest for online reputation companies to be paying the very companies behind the websites that are harming their clients. By doing so, they are keeping such websites in business.
The business model of some reputation-attack sites may currently be legal, but I think it’s more often just not right. For the reputation repair firms, not disclosing upfront to their clients that they are the actual payment arms of the reputation-attack sites is also not right.
I’ve looked into some of the companies behind various reputation-attack sites in the past few years, and I’ve discovered that some of them likely have actual partnership agreements with some reputation management agencies.
I have a huge sympathy for the victims of reputation attacks, and for people and companies that did something wrong in the past and who’ve since addressed that and changed for the better. These people need to be able to move on in many cases, and they need for the past to fade into the background to do that.
They need to be able to make new personal relationships and to be able to make a living. So, it’s completely understandable that they’d be open to paying to make the past go away more easily.
Some ORM marketers like me are motivated to help these people to get improvement, and because of that, they’ll be open to paying the fees demanded to clean stuff up. But, keep in mind that each time you pay these despair merchants, you’re keeping them in business and facilitating them doing this to more people in the future.
But, I have no sympathy for the companies that have outright partnership agreements with reputation-attack sites and who have effectively become their storefronts. It’s particularly lazy not even to intend to try to build positive content and simply displace the bad stuff — it’s bad that they may not be able to do the very things they represent they can do. And, it’s terrible that they’re likely misrepresenting what they’re doing and what their relationships may be with the reputation-attack sites.
The Federal Trade Commission and perhaps other federal agencies need to conduct a thorough review of these types of sites and the agencies that process money for them. The nondisclosures and such are textbook cases for activities that may be considered fraudulent.
Reasons NOT to pay
Here’s why you shouldn’t pay the thinly veiled extortion demands:
1. Paying may not solve your problem. The dynamics of the internet are such that once content gets published, it often gets copied and redistributed elsewhere on the net. If you think you can just pay and get it completely removed through that route, be very careful and perhaps get an expert to try to check for you in advance.
The original content may have already been copied over to websites where you cannot even pay to have it removed. Once you get rid of something, search engines sometimes then pop up the same content on page one from a different source. Reputation repair shortcuts may not be a sustainable solution.
2. Most of the reputation-attack sites are one of many, so you might pay for removal only to see another of their sites continue to display the content. Or, worse yet, you might pay one of their sites for removal, and when they think they have a “live one,” they could turn around and republish it on one of their other sites.
Think about it: What’s stopping them, exactly?!? I’d argue that if you pay a company for removal, it should contractually state that you pay them once for removal across ALL of their sites, and you shouldn’t have to pay extra for each iteration.
3. If you pay them, you give them an incentive to post more garbage. You’re rewarding their bad behavior. This really isn’t a whole lot different from extortion. If you pay the blackmailer, you’re signaling that you’re willing to pay — perhaps another time or two again in the future.
If you pay, and then a “new” site pops up somewhere, displaying the same content, do you have the ability to tell if it’s the very same company doing it to you all over again?
4. Paying them is keeping them in business. Do you really want to pay for their luxury cars, hot tubs, swimming pools, and European vacations? These are people who have purposefully hurt you to make a profit off it. There are millions of ways to make money in the modern world, and they selected one that profits off of trying to hurt people.
It’s totally understandable to want to pay them to make stuff about you go away. But, keep in mind, when you pay them, you’re enabling them to do this again and again to other people who will be hurt, desperate and afraid, just like you.
5. If you contemplate paying through an agency, they may be lying to you. Is the payment to the reputation-attack site represented through some smoke-and-mirrors, like “the payment is only to get them to perform a review” or “the fee is for nonbinding arbitration?” If you’re paying these people outright, you deserve to be told what’s really going on and just precisely what you should expect to get out of it.
Are they pretending some big process is going on to decide if your material will get removed? It’s deceptive if they don’t tell you upfront that they have an ongoing relationship with the reputation-attack site.
6. In some cases, a straightforward reputation clean-up effort may cost about the same. But, there are some other benefits with a reputation cleanup effort — it gives you collateral materials that can insulate you from new future attacks, and it can have SEO benefits or other marketing benefits to you or your business.
7. If the bad stuff about you was created purposefully by someone trying to harm you, they might notice when it gets removed, and try to attack you all over again. In that case, paying to remove something is virtually wasted money — instead, you would’ve been better off in the first place with just a positive reputation effort and SEO work.
8. In some instances when you pay them, the reputation-attack sites may do nothing. I’ve seen complaints posted online about many of these sites as well as for the reputation clean-up sites that offer to get the stuff deleted. There have even been some lawsuits around this.
9. The “free” “removal” option: For some types of content, you may be able to get the search engines to remove the links to it when your name is searched upon. Honestly, most people you’re concerned about would only find these reputation-attack sites via search engines — so, if you can remove the listing from search results, then the content becomes “out of sight, out of mind.”
Both Google and Bing will now remove porn revenge pages from search results. If you have a court order, you can submit it to Google to request removal of content.
In most cases, removing something from search results effectively makes it invisible. (For those living in Europe, the “Right To Be Forgotten” laws may apply, providing you a route for getting stuff removed from search engines’ results.)
10. Wouldn’t it better to spend the money on stuff you actually want? You can fix things yourself in some cases, by the way. It’s not all that hard to set up a website in your name, blogs, social media sites, and publish content targeting your name. Read my article, “9 Key Points for Cleaning Up Your Online Reputation Nightmare Via SEO” for some pointers.
Yes, this requires some time and diligence. But, if you’re dedicated, you can move that negative stuff off page one in search engines yourself, and save the money you’d pay the extortionary businesses. Use it on something that builds your life!
If you’re paying just for a chance at improvement, I’d argue you’d be better off undertaking a much more straightforward reputation repair campaign by building up your online presence and building content associated with your name that can push the bad stuff down.
If you’re struggling to fix your own reputation nightmare, you begin to feel desperate enough to pay someone’s takedown fee. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty — I mainly wanted to outline the risks and aspects based on my experience in facing these types of sites.
You have my sympathy if you’re stressed in dealing with your online reputation! Maybe in some instances it will be a quicker and cheaper way out of the problem. But, from what I’ve seen, it could be a waste.
For agencies that are not affiliated with the reputation-attack sites, I also understand the desire to solve problems for your client. But, I urge you to look for any other options rather than paying these parasitic sites that profit off individuals by distributing and promoting stuff that damages people.
Please fully educate your client on the risks I outlined above, and only pay if the client truly wants to take that route. Keep in mind that by helping that individual, we keep these negative sites alive more days to further damage a great many more people. Be aware of that ethical dilemma!
For agencies that have partnered with these reputation-attack sites, I urge you to reconsider your business model and shift to something that’s not positioned you as a de facto money-laundering storefront for sites that are barely legal extortion. Extortion may be legally defined in part as: “The gaining of property or money by almost any kind of force, or threat of … harm to reputation.” Doesn’t this sound like what’s going on?
It’s a shame that people will expend all the time and effort on building out businesses that profit primarily off the unjustified harming of others. It’s time for the online reputation industry to clean itself up, too, and agree that it’s a conflict of ethics to partner with such reputation-attack sites and to facilitate them in getting paid.
Isn’t it pretty damning that while the major credit card companies declared these types of businesses to be too icky, some of the online reputation agencies would step in to process money for them?!?
Eventually, laws will catch up with this type of stuff and, at the very least, will compel agencies to clearly disclose when they partner with the thinly veiled extortionary schemes — or, the law will outright ban any such hidden partnerships.
But, in the meantime, determine for yourself that it may not be in your best interest to pay these companies to remove stuff for you. There are other options which don’t have the “ick” factor and may benefit you more in the long run.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.