It is an unfortunate development in our digital society that there is now a tendency to publicly shame and humiliate. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the breakdown of relationships. It would seem that, to some, revenge is a dish best served online.
Where there is a modern trend, it is unsurprising that some will see this as a business opportunity. There is a raft of morally questionable websites online dedicated to “exposing” people involved in relationship break-ups. To name a few: shesahomewrecker.com, exposehomewreckers.com, cheaters.lol, cheatersandliars.com, cheatersandhomewreckers.com, liarscheatersus.com, fraudsrus.com, exposeplayers.com, cheaterland.com and cheaternation.com. Add to those some revolting sites dedicated to exposing naked and intimate pictures and photographs taken by people in private moments.
These websites allow anonymous users, with no stops and checks, to upload allegations, photos of the accused and often details of social media pages, designed for one purpose only: to cause public embarrassment and shame. The aim apparently being to infiltrate a person’s Google search results and cause them reputational damage and personal embarrassment.
Of course, in the UK, such postings are unlawful under legislation protecting private information and personal data (not to mention in defamation, given that many of the postings are highly unlikely to be founded on fact, and simply motivated by spite and vitriol). Anyone uploading such posts should be very wary indeed. But what do these websites care about the law of England and Wales (or any other European jurisdiction)? Of course, the answer is “not at all”. Most operate out of the United States and all hide behind domain providers like Domains by Proxy LLC which mask the identities of the individuals or companies behind these websites. Many of the websites have no Terms and Conditions and no way of contacting them.
We are aware that some sites simply copy material posted on other “cheater” websites which means that, if one post has been uploaded, then it is highly like that it will proliferate.
US Removal Companies
So, how do people get these posts removed? This, is where it becomes very murky indeed. There are a number of US companies offering “guaranteed” removal of these types of posts. One boasts “We delete post [sic] within 24 hours”. There’s no explanation as to how this is achieved and, considering the sites always have either no Terms and Conditions or Terms that will only allow removals in limited circumstances (nude photographs, pictures of children, breach of copyright), then it’s quite extraordinary that these companies can make such guarantees.
The websites that they boast about removing content from extends to sites specialising in revenge pornography (sadly a very real and upsetting problem) and US websites which upload mugshots previously released by US police authorities.
What raises suspicions though, are the fees involved. One client came to us having spent over $500 on these types of removal services and then, after she had made payment, another post appeared on another website and the quoted fee for that removal was considerably higher.
One of these removal companies provides some purported explanation of its services by stating that they use: “Technographic data” but, of course, this is no explanation at all. It’s baffling as to what they mean. Are they suggesting that they have removed the content without the website operator’s consent? This is highly doubtful.
The most obvious explanation is that either the removal companies are connected to the cheater sites or that the process simply involves the removal companies sharing a cut of their fees with the cheater companies in order to persuade them to remove content. In one very clear instance of a financial relationship between the exposé site and a removal company removearrest.com advertises it’s services on the mainpage of mugshots.com.
Google – Right to be Forgotten
There is hope, however, for EU citizens. Following the EU Court of Justice decision in Google Spain EU citizens have a right to request that Google blocks sites (that appear for searches for their names) where those sites breach their data protection rights.
Google will refuse these requests where there is a genuine public interest in publication of the sites. Where the sites in question are devoted only to public humiliation about private matters there is clearly no public interest. We have found 100% success in seeking Google’s assistance in blocking these sites.
The result is, though the posts will remain on these murky websites and can be found by anyone strange enough to spend time looking through the sites, it will not be possible for anyone in the EU to find the posts when searching for a victim’s name on Google. This, of course, will come as a huge relief to anyone who has become a victim of this type of site.
Whether UK citizens will still be able to rely on this process after the country leaves the EU next year is an open question. Much will depend on what approach the UK takes to EU data protection law. Our prediction, given that it would take thousands of lawyers years and years to rewrite our data laws, the Google right to be forgotten tool is likely to remain well beyond 2019.
This post originally appeared on the Himsworth Legal Blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks