This is an add on to the story Kashmir Hill covered in the New York Times. We have extensive experience in matters like Guy Babcock is dealing with and can help if you’re stuck in a bad situation like Guy is in.
Imagine searching on your name in Google and the results are sites that claim you are a thief, a fraudster and, worst of all, a pedophile. Unimaginable? This actually happened to Guy Babcock, 59, who lives in Oxford in the UK. He also found pictures of himself with pedophile splashed across them in large red type. Not only that, his contact details and the name of his employer were also posted along with the accusations.
Needless to say Mr Babcock is neither a thief, fraudster nor pedophile but, in 2018 after being alerted by his father, he discovered that his reputation was ruined if anyone believed the malicious claims that had been posted on multiple sites. Even worse, the person doing this had also slandered his brother, wife, sister, brother-in-law, nephew, cousin and aunt. Whoever was doing this had gone to a lot of trouble to slander him and anyone associated with him: the males were all pedophiles, the women all thieves. Only his son had been spared, probably because he was only 8 years old.
Mr Babcock’s experience, while extreme, is not that unusual. Because of the law that pertains to posts on internet sites, section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the owners of the sites are not liable for what someone posts on their site – be it false, libellous or defamatory. Because most people do not have a great deal of information about themselves on the internet, search engines will seize upon whatever sites contain their name and return them in the results. As a result, a malicious person can easily ensure that the lies they post about a person become the first result returned by search engines.
Once, a person’s reputation was relatively secure from this type of attack; people might spread rumors in a social circle but were they to print lies in a newspaper they could be subject to a lawsuit which was probably enough to deter them. The digital age makes it all to easy to spread lies with impunity and the search engines and websites on which it appears are reluctant to take action since there is no overarching legal requirement for them to do so. For some sites, this is actually their business model. Examples include sites where ex-boyfriends post nude photographs or make false and degrading comments about their former girlfriend, sites that publish a person’s mugshot after they are arrested and others that contain false and defamatory claims without any fact-checking: in many cases these sites will only remove the offensive material for a steep fee. Essentially, they hold a person’s reputation for ransom. Often, the only solution is to take legal action against the person spreading the false information (if they can be identified at all).
In Mr Babcock’s case, he reported the harassment he was suffering to authorities in both the UK and Canada but they are often of little help with neither the will nor resources to follow-up these types of cases. The British authorities, however, took the report seriously since there is a law that against communications that cause distress intentionally. After the British police told him to gather evidence, he and his brother (who lives in Montreal) put together a document of the posts that was soon over a hundred pages long.
Finally, Mr Babcock caught a break when he discovered that one of the posts (which claimed he was a janitor and was only masquerading as an IT software specialist) included a photo of the person who had created it. He was shocked to discover that it was a former employee, Nadire Atas, that had worked at a real estate agency he was operating in 1990 with his father. While initially she had been a star performer, her work began to suffer and she was subsequently fired by Mr Babcock’s father. At the time she had made threats against his father leading to an affidavit in a Canadian court.
The picture also caused Mr Babcock to recall what had occurred when his mother died: the family received an anonymous letter that included vulgar language and celebrated her death. In addition, a neighbor also received a typewritten letter claiming the Mr Babcock’s father roamed the suburb at night masturbating in the bushes. It all seemed to make a kind of twisted sense; she was still harboring a grudge decades after he interaction with the Babcock’s had ended.
When Mr Babcock searched on her name he discovered that he was not the only target of her online campaign. A lawyer acting for a bank that had foreclosed on some properties Ms Atas owned, Christina Wallis, wrote a blogpost about how, after Ms Atas’ properties were sold to cover the bank’s mortgage, multiple people became targets of her online attacks including bank employees, lawyers of the bank and their relatives among others. The attacks were designed to be returned high in search results and, like in Mr Babcock’s case, included the victims’ addresses, contact information and employer details. One of the targets, a lawyer, was forced to use her maiden name when applying for jobs since no-one would consider her because of the lies posted about her; once she did so she had several offers of employment.
What this demonstrates, for that lawyer, Mr Babcock and his family and anyone else subject to this type of attack, is the ability of one angry, deranged or simply malicious person to effectively destroy someone’s reputation and career without that person having any effective recourse. Even when they find the offending party and take them to court the offensive material has already been seen and the damage done, even if it is subsequently removed, and in some cases remains online anyway.
Ms Atas was the subject of a defamation lawsuit in 2016 bought by the lawyers of the bank she had slandered. The judgement was that she was to stop posting about them. She did so but then began writing about their family members instead and it was around this time that she turned her ire on the Babcocks. Ms Atas has undertaken similar attacks against more than 100 people and created more than 12,000 defamatory posts according to results produced by software that Mr Babcock produced to track her internet activity. She is an extreme case (and is suffering from mental health problems, according to her family) but it does highlight this problem where website owners hide behind the ‘safe harbor’ provisions of the Communications Decency Act to take no responsibility and no action for these types of attacks. Reputation management services companies have been established to deal with this issue and it is telling that their only effective response, in many cases, is to create sufficient positive posts on other websites to move the defamatory material lower down in the search results so that it is not seen.
Many have called for the law to be changed with regard to the responsibility sites take for material posted on their websites. Recent events in the political sphere also suggest that the ability to unashamedly lie and post defamatory and patently false information online should be subject to some sort of control: it certainly would be in any other communications medium so is there any reason the internet should be immune?