How and Why I Was Defamed by Google
In 2006, like many people, I did not know how the Internet worked. I never used Google and did not surf the web with any great frequency. I did not have any social media profiles (Facebook, My Space), run a website, or use Twitter. The only references in a search for my name were related to my academic work. I only occasionally shopped online through eBay.com and my online communication was limited to a membership of a couple closed groups.
I have a pre-exisiting life-time mood disorder, a ‘garden variety’ depression, known as Dysthymia. Like the majority of people with this mood disorder, I have suffered bouts of major depression, also known as double depression. These were primarily due to external factors such as a protracted bullying while working for the South Australian Government. But for the most part I managed it successfully for more than two decades until I turned 50 in 2006.
From mid 2006 the depression became severe and crippling and continued unabated for more than three years. This was not a ‘midlife crisis’, it was a ‘black’ depression from which there appeared to be no respite. It is now accepted that hormonal changes associated with menopause can cause depression. Women with existing disorders have a higher risk for major depression at this time of life.
At the 2015 trial I tried to describe living with major depression to His Honour Justice Blue by providing an analogy: I said to try and imagine the second or third day of a bad bout of the flu’ and needing to function at one’s normal level, with all the life expectations, and for an indeterminate amount of time and not knowing when or if it will ever abate. But it is difficult for anyone who has not suffered from a major depression to understanding the debilitating impact on quality of life. I sought medical help and this was not only unsuccessful, but the treatment made me sicker and the side effects (such as drowsiness) of the prescribed medications nearly killed me, including many nights when I was falling asleep while driving.
I refuse to be ashamed because I became sick! After three years of trying to deal what was essentially a process of constructive dismissal by the South Australian Department of Health (because I reported bullying and was forced onto the redeployment list from a permanent research position), the unrelenting depression finally resulted in a breakdown in October/November 2008. I was mis-diagnosed with bipolar disorder by my treating doctor. In fact, previous and subsequent diagnoses, including from the Defendant’s expert witness (the psychiatrist Dr Anthony Davis), and a world expert in mood disorders (Dr Mark Rowe, stated that they did not think that I was suffering from bipolar disorder.
I have never needed combinations of anti-psychotic meds and I refused to live in a chemical straight jacket. The prescribed medications were making me sicker and I really did not realise the impact on my mental and physical health from unnecessary psychiatric meds until my head cleared after I refused to take them. At the end of 2009, and after some research, I finally found the correct treatment for the black depression – bio identical hormone therapy.
This treatment was and remains medically controversial but it was prescribed by a medical doctor and it worked: By the beginning of 2010 and after more than three unrelenting years the ‘black’ depression lifted within weeks of commencing the treatment regime – a simple daily application of a compounded cream (to a medical prescription) to my arm. But by then I was faced with trying to obtain removal of the defamation published at the top of the Google search results for my name so that I had a chance of obtaining employment. Ten years, a successful trial and appeal and after filing a second case against Google I am still trying to obtain proper removal.
It was during that period of severe depression that I became hooked into the Kasamba website. This came about as a result of membership in an online depression support community. After a while I realised that I was being conned and so were many others. I set up a support group and those people who were (and still are) using the the Kasamba platform to scam people attacked the support group members and primarily me because they were losing money.
In 2017 the data shows that online scamming is endemic. For example, according to the FBI run Internet Crime Complaint Centre (IC3), in 2016 romance scam victims lost $173m in California alone. Australian citizen lose millions of dollars a year to scams. Ten years ago there simply wasn’t the awareness about online scamming or consumer assistance or information available from government run organisations. But there were some online complaints about Kasamba on the private websites such as Ripoff Report and other consumer complaints websites. The true number of complaints is likely much higher than is reflected online because the business model of most of these websites is to profit from ‘naming and shaming’. Like the website RipoffReport.com corporations and businesses can pay to have negative content ‘arbitrated’ or removed.
Ripoff Report now has more than 440 separate complaints about the company Kasamba (including relating to the period in which it was known as Liveperson). Even in 2007 there were numerous complaints on Ripoff Report posted by people who had been conned by the ‘experts’. Of course, in 2007 I thought the website RipoffReport.com was a legitimate representation of the consumers’ voice. I was wrong, as I subsequently discovered while trying to find a way to get the false and defamatory content removed. Ripoff Report is an extortion racket enabled by Google.
In late 2007 I started a support group for people who had been ripped off by Kasamba and posted about this on Ripoff Report. The group closed after four months because we were attacked by those ‘experts’ who saw their profits from conning people compromised. I and the others were attacked on Ripoff Report, the group was infiltrated by these people who hurled abuse at us and accused me of trying to profit from supporting people. The group closed and at the end of 2007 the first of the false accusations was published on Ripoff Report. The ‘reports’ about me were a clear attempt to stop consumers joining the support group because, of course, if they realised they were being conned they stopped paying these ‘experts’ vast sums of money.
While I wasn’t happy about these two ‘reports’ (both of which were found to be published by Google and which conveyed the defamtory imputations) I did a search on Yahoo (the search engine I used at the time) and did not see any evidence of them appearing in the search results. In those days it took some time for content to be indexed in the search engines. Because I had no knowledge of how the Internet worked I thought that it was unlikely that someone would go to Ripoff Report and do a search for my name.
I started another support group in 2008. The support group functioned by sharing experiences and providing information to assist individuals to make up their own mind about whether they should continue to spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on these ‘experts’. At one point the support group had two hundred members. Soon after further ‘false and defamatory content was published on Ripoff Report. At the end of that year I did email the website to ask for removal but I did not receive a reply.
My first realisation that the false and defamatory accusations were on view to the world was in March 2009 after snippets from the website Ripoff Report containing the defamtory imputations and published on Google at the top of a search for my name were found by my former employer. It was clear that I was the person referenced in the defamtory imputations because I was identified by name, location and occupation. The defamatory content was used as ‘ammunition’ to try and force my resignation.
After further unsuccessful attempts to get the defamatory content removed by Ripoff Report, I embarked on a process of research to learn all that I could about Google because almost 95% of searches in Australia were (and are in 2019) conducted on that search engine. In 2009 it was very difficult to find any information on how to request removal of links and snippets from the Google index. From April 2007 removal requests to Google were only available to webmasters and only if the URL had been removed from the webpage.
Nonetheless, I kept searching and finally found an email address for Google Australia. In September and October 2009 I sent several removal requests to both Google Australia and Google Inc (now LLC). These were refused. Google lied and said they could not remove it without the co-operation of the webmaster. Yet, after I filed proceedings and Google were served they suddenly decided to remove some of the links from google.com.au based on my removal requests and concerns notices (under The Defamation Act, South Australia, 2005) that I had sent to both Google and Google Australia in 2009 and 2010.
This is a screenshot of some of the search results for my name sent to Google and Google Australia with my removal requests. The first two snippets are from Ripoff Report, the third is from LinkedIn, the fourth is from the website Complaints Board and the fifth references my academic work.
It is clear that I had reason to be worried about my employment prospects and needed them removed. In late 2010 I consulted lawyers because I thought that if I filed defamation proceedings Google would just remove the content and I could get on with my life. This presumption was based on another Australian case in which two real estate agents sued Google over defamtory content. Google removed the links and the matter did not proceed. It appears that Google considered that unlike two real estate agents who deal with high priced property, someone like me would not have the resources to fight them. They were partially correct. By May 2015 Google had refused to mediate and continued to publish the defamatory imputations despite several removal requests. With 18 days until the trial and no money to fund legal representation, I had no choice but to represent myself. It was a horrendous experience but I won.
Why I had No Choice But to Sue Google
The accessibility of knowledge and information through the Internet has revolutionised paid employment. The number of employers who use it to screen job candidates has increased 500% in the last decade. It was clear that if I ever wanted to work again I needed the links to false and defamatory content described by the trial Justice as containing ‘serious and inherently damaging imputations’ (Duffy v Google Inc (No 2) 2015 [SASC] 206 23 December 2015 paras [116 & 117] removed from Google. But Issuing defamation proceedings against Google Inc was absolutely the last resort because I did not want to endure what I knew would become a very public court battle.
I also knew that once the case was picked up by the media (and this was likely given the profile of the Defendant), there was no chance that I could quietly resolve the problem and get back to my life. By 2011 I was, and AM aware of the ‘Streisand Effect’ of the Internet. This has turned out to be the case and even after I won I have been confronted with accusations that I should have lost, online ridicule and abuse, intimidation and threats of harm. To be honest, had these imputations only been published on the website Ripoff Report (and not accessible on the search engines, or published to a small number of people in a newsletter, for example, or were completely removed in response to my notifications I would not have continued with my court action.
Contrary to publications by lawyers who should know better, the problem that I and other Australians face is that the domains and websites on which defamatory material is published are usually not hosted in Australia. As it boasts on the website, Ripoff Report is statute barred from litigation both in the USA and from overseas litigants. In the USA Ripoff Report is protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act which states that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider”:
Ripoff Report states that it will not readily disclose the name of authors of the ‘reports’:
In 2011 I had no idea of the identities of the authors. In subsequent years, while preparing the Ripoff Reports on Kasamba/Liveperson for the trial I did manage to tentatively identify the authors. My only legal option and choice was to sue Google. In 2002 an Australian High Court decision found that defamation occurs in the jurisdiction in which the plaintiff lived (Victoria), not where the material was uploaded (USA). This meant that because Google did business in Australia they were potentially liable for publications that defame its citizens. Filing defamation proceedings was my an absolute last choice!
During the 18 months of unsuccessful attempts to find a way to remove the defamatory material from the first page of the Google SERPs and in the years since my case became public, I have communicated with other victims of Ripoff Report including those from Australia. They faced the same barriers: Both Ripoff Report and Google ignore or refuse requests to remove serious defamatory material. The result is lost business and work opportunities and the impact upon all facets of life are profound. Typically, victims experience an initial shock reaction which may be followed by physical, psychological and/or financial effects in the short term and possible longer term effects on employment and relationships.
In addition to primary victimisation resulting from the criminal event, an individual may experience secondary victimisation resulting from the way institutions and individuals respond to their situation and needs. Victims of cyber harassment often have thoughts of suicide and this has certainly been my experience. It is difficult to understand what a company worth so much gains from refusing to remove obviously defamatory and destructive links. Google says it is ‘not the internet police’ but there is copious evidence that rather than automated search results Google make decisions about the factors that rank websites on their search engine results (SERPs) and program their algorithm based upon a continuous process of evaluation. This was admitted in the evidence by the Google experts in my trial.
Google: Bullying Tactics Backed by Billions of Dollars
After I filed defamation proceedings against Google Inc it became clear that my aim of obtaining removal was at odds with the Defendant’s aim of making me ‘go away’. For example, the Defendant sent requests to my lawyers for ‘further particulars’ which included inane questions such as asking to clarify a what is a URL. Their strategy was clear, to run up my legal bills so that I would give up. The Defendant took every opportunity to obstruct the legal process and when headed for trial, refused to mediate (Duffy v Google Inc (No. 3)  SASC 1 (21 January 2016) from para ).
In June 2011 I filed for an injunction to remove the links to the defamatory content. Google flew their legal team in from Sydney and kicked up a fuss in the court about the number of URLs that I requested removed (about 80). They said they were not responsible as a publisher (even though Google knew about the Ripoff Report ‘business model’ from 2008), and suggested that I was in fact ‘guilty’ of stalking and harassment. Later that year Google published their Transparency Report detailed the removal requests they had received and actioned. From 2013 Google published data on the number of copyright removal requests that had been actioned and it was in the millions. All of this ate into my savings, which, of course was the Defendant’s aim – to ‘deep pocket’ me. I lost the injunction. Had I been successfull and the defamatory content was completely removed, I would have walked away from the litigation because I was acutely aware that until the media published about my case I could conceivably just quietly return to my life.
In October 2011 I realised that I could probably not avoid media attention for much longer. I decided to put this blog online. Google promptly removed it from all of their domains. It was only re-indexed after I complained on a blog on which Matt Cutts was participating in a debate. In late November 2011 I decided to co-operate with a media request from The Australian newspaper in order to put my side of the story online. I remember sitting in the car outside the newsagent on the day it was due to be published. I felt sick to my stomach because I knew there was no way that there was no going back to my life before the defamation. The article no longer appears to be accessible but it was picked up by a leading SEO blog.
Near the end of 2011 the Defendant filed an application seeking to strike out certain paragraphs of the claim or alternatively that the court should order the provision of further and better particulars pertaining to certain paragraphs of the claim or that the court should order the dismissal of the claim and the payment of costs. This was yet another ‘deep pocketing strategy designed to impose legal costs with the aim that I would give up and fail to pursue the claim. This strategy of deep pocketing is often used by big corporations to deter or stop legal action from smaller businesses or individuals.
In December 2011 we had to go to a legal argument in front of a Judge to defend this application and order the Defendant to file a defence. The Defendant mounted various arguments that the pleadings were deficient and that it was an abuse of process. His Honour Judge Blumberg heard the legal argument and ordered that the claim could continue because the Defendant “failed to demonstrate any substantial prejudice or prejudice to the action by the way in which the pleading is constructed”. We had to remove two words from the claim – ‘substantially similiar’. This attempt by Google to strike out my claim cost me thousands of dollars to defend which, of course, was its aim. At that time I was living on my savings and paying mounting legal costs. I absolutely hated going to court. In 2011, and on many occasions since, I have felt like I was falling apart from the inside out. But the actual trial (from 22 June 2015) was much worse than sitting in the gallery at interlocutory hearings.
By 2012 it became clear that Google was not going to completely remove the defamatory content and moreover, that I was in for a long legal battle. Although, at that stage I had no conception of what exactly this would entail. The Defendant attended the required mediation but nothing was resolved. As the years went by we had to get court orders to obtain proper Disclosure from the Defendant and even then they failed to produce all of the requested information and evidence. In April 2019 I discovered that Google withheld a relevant document from disclosure and I have filed a contempt of court application.
The defamatory content was never completely removed, even from google.com.au because Ripoff Report uses a SEO strategy of increasing the number of URLs to every webpage in order to keep the snippets at the top of the Google index. At one point there were more than 200 Ripoff Report URLs associated with my name on Google domains:
In October 2016 I sued Google a second time. The Court ordered proceedings to be stayed until after the Appeal decision was handed down by the Full Court. by May 2018 I was again facing mounting legal bills. Google delayed paying my costs of the first matter until I filed an interlocutory application to the effect that it should not be allowed to proceed with a strike out application in my second matter while in default of costs in the first matter. Google subsequently paid up. The strike out hearing was over a two day period in September 2018. I went overseas straight after the hearing and am now waiting for the court’s decision on whether the claim can proceed. His Honour stated that he was inclined to rule for me.