You may recall, some time ago, a blog called Quackometer had to remove a page about the Society of Homeopaths because the Society of Homeopaths* threatened his hosting company with legal action. Well, he's in trouble again. Just the other day, his godawful web hosts, Netcetera (you may have noticed some more Google- than user-oriented keyword selection going on here), received a letter from a lawyer representing a quack called Joseph Chikelue Obi. In case that page also gets taken down, here is a cache of it on Furl.net. Here are Furls of the offending two posts: Right Royal College of Pompous Quackery - Dublin; Ethical Quackery, the Monarchy and Kate Moss.
The problem is that Joseph Chikelue Obi says that the posts are "defamatory":
Our clients hereby give you formal notice that they are determined to sue you directly for the highly defamatory contents contained on the website should you fail to immediately shut down the website and delete all of the defamatory material relating to the Royal College of Alternative Medicine, Professor Dr Obi and our clients` lawfully registered Trademarks.Nowhere is it stated exactly what parts of the pages are defamatory or what the complaint is, because that would give Andy Lewis (who runs the site) chance to remove only that part. Also, of course, because the Quackometer pages are backed up with published reports in newspapers which Joseph Chikelue Obi has chosen not to sue, although he's not really planning to sue Lewis or Netcetera either: he just saw the reports about the time the Society of Homeopaths threatened to and (having not read them very carefully at all) thought "maybe I can get the annoying pages taken down". I mean, look at this ridiculous letter:
In case the defamation continues beyond 12 noon on Monday the 21st of January 2008, we are instructed to hold you fully liable to the tune of £1 Million (One Million Pounds) per day, together with additional punitive damages relating to the many months during which the defamatory material had and has been globally accessible via your server.One Million Pounds? That's ridiculous. That's just a made-up number. It's designed to sound Big And Scary, so Netcetera bow to his will, and it worked, because Netcetera are cowards. They clearly don't care about anything but getting as much money as they can and keeping out of trouble at any cost, and I really don't expect any more from them. I don't expect any more from Joseph Chikelue Obi either: his college is imaginary, he's been suspended for misconduct, he takes people's money promising them everything and gives them nothing, newspapers advice people to avoid him, charges £250 to hear recorded phone messages, refused to turn up to his own GMC hearing, and his qualifications are highly suspect.
The next paragraph of the letter shocked me, though:
Kindly note that Google has already blocked the highly defamatory material from appearing on its search engines in the Republic of Ireland, and is currently in the process of extending the ban to other countries.I honestly expect more from Google. Aside from the fact that I can't for a second see how Google could possibly be labelled liable for libel when all they did was tell people that someone else has written a webpage pointing out that some newspapers published articles containing information that was probably true anyway, it doesn't seem to fit with their general politic. I've written to Google, but not long enough ago that I could reasonably demand an answer yet. Here's some (well, okay, most) of my email:
I understand you have recently removed some pages from your index after a legal threat: http://www.google.ie/search?qIt's actually remarkably hard to email Google. Their website is awful by modern standards. You can't easily contact them.
I'd like to know how sites are checked, when this kind of threat is received, to see if they are genuinely defamatory. Having a policy of "not using an editorial viewpoint to determine the ranking of results" ( http://www.google.com/support
/bin/answer.py?answer=4115 &query=editorial&topic=&type=) and a policy of removing defamatory content at the request or threat of individuals concerned seems to be somewhat at odds with your stated "[strong belief] in allowing the democracy of the web to determine the inclusion and ranking of sites in our search results" (http://www.google.com/support /bin/answer.py?answer=39334 &ctx=en:cuf2). The web's democratic nature only works if you allow both sides of a story equal rights to your search results.
... If the world's leading search engine happily indexes his own pages and third-party pages which sing his praises, but removes all pages which criticise him or highlight his past "misadventures" ... then anyone searching on his name or 'services' will be left with the false impression that he is a universally-praised and wholly uncontroversial man with no detractors, which is simply not the case.
This clearly leaves a situation where your search results are not only factually inaccurate, they are not even a true reflection of the content available on the web. It might be more helpful to simply return no results at all.
If nothing else, the "websites removed" notice should be placed in a more prominent position: A search for Obi (http://www.google.com/search
?hl=en&q=Joseph+Chikelue+Obi &btnG=Search ) returns the "defamatory" page as the very first hit, whereas the notice about its removal on the same search at google.ie is right at the bottom of the page, where many users simply won't see it.
Google has a reputation, and to some degree I think an obligation, for providing unbiased search results and that is not what you are doing in this case. At the moment I feel badly let down. Is there anything you can tell me to allay that?
*It's well worth using the phrase "the Society of Homeopaths" just to make "the Society of Homeopaths" a link to one of the blogs that reposted that blog about what the Society of Homeopaths did. It boosts its ranking in a Google search for "the Society of Homeopaths".