How to manage online reputation after false allegations
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How to manage online reputation after false allegations
There are few things in life more frustrating than someone who is falsely accused, then goes through a criminal trial, found not guilty and then having to live for decades with news articles that highlight the false allegations. This case study shows how false allegations can strike like lightning, instantly darkening the clear skies of one's personal or professional reputation. This challenge is intensified by search algorithms that may unwittingly prioritise salacious or controversial content, further embedding damaging narratives.
This case study is about our client, Boris (not his real name) who in the early 2000’s was falsely accused of rape. The trial took its toll on Boris and his family. After 18 months of waiting for a trial, Boris was eventually found not guilty by the jury. This verdict highlighted what Boris had said all long, that his accuser had fabricated the allegations.
Unfortunately for Boris, his trail had received extensive media attention including the publication of numerous news articles in the press. The majority of newspapers who reported from the first days of his trial, had failed to report his acquittal. This meant, that articles containing the allegations against him were still available online, years after Boris was found to be innocent.
Since he was found not guilty of the false allegations, Boris had created an HR advisory business with nearly 40 employees working for him. In 2021, two decades after the trial, Boris had a disgruntled former employee who found news articles from his trial. The former employee then began to send email to Boris’ current employees and associates, encouraging them to Google Boris’ full name, together with the word “rape”.
This search phrase brought up the old news articles. This, of course led to the dated articles surfacing prominently on the Google. This began to jeopardise not only Boris’ professional image, but also threatened to disturb his family life. The possibility of his younger children or their peers stumbling upon these articles weighed heavily on him, a fear he thought was locked in the past. All that Boris wanted ws to remove news articles after a not guilty verdict.
Boris' goal was to remove newspaper reports about a court case from Google. Seeking to address this issue, Boris made numerous attempts to request Google to delist the news articles. Unfortunately, following a right to be forgotten submission time after time Google declined the request, citing that keeping them online was of “public interest”. Eventually, just before Boris had given up, he was advised by his company lawyer to get in touch with our firm.
During the initial consultation, we explained to Boris that Google simply doesn’t like the type of criminal offence that Boris was charged with. It was our view, based on our extensive experience, that many of Google’s caseworkers have certain prejudices. This resulted in the rejection of requests to delist news articles about trials of alleged sex offenders.
For this reason, often, we need to escalate matters all the way to Google’s qualified legal team before Google will eventually agree to delist those types of news articles. Our team of experienced solicitors meticulously reviewed the situation and proposed a dual-strategy solution.
We firstly advised to Boris that it was worthwhile on this occasion to engage directly with article publishers. The news articles were now old. As they did not report the fact that Boris was found not guilty, there was hardly any public interest in having those news articles still published.
The alternative strategy involved making a formal request to Google to delist problematic articles, ensuring they don't feature in search results. Should Google be unresponsive, the solicitors were optimistic that a subsequent appeal against Google to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) would mandate the delisting of the articles. We agreed to take on the case on a fixed fee basis , eliminating unpredictable costs.
Whilst only a court can compel Google to delist news articles, in most cases, a well-argued legal submission is likely to produce the same outcome. In Boris’ case, we submitted a well drafted GDPR Notice to Google. Upon appeal to a higher-level, Google’s caseworker was accepted to be sufficient to facilitate the delisting of the offending news articles. This had provided Boris with a relatively quick solution to an issue that had been disturbing his life for more than 20 years.
However, the direct accessibility of these articles remained a concern, causing distress to Boris's family and casting shadows over business operations. Although the publishers remained adamant about retaining their content, they agreed to our request to improve the accuracy of the news articles, to ensure and to insert a special code that will stop search engines from crawling and indexing the news articles’ pages. This outcome provided a great relief to Boris.
Handling a case like Boris' is laden with profound emotions, complexities, and challenges. The feelings and impacts on individuals who have faced false allegations, as Boris did, are deep and often overwhelming. Before receiving professional assistance, many are trapped under a looming cloud of false accusations, feeling helpless and besieged from all sides.
The emotional toll is evident, not only from the direct stress of the allegations but also from the potential societal ramifications. The lack of closure due to the continued online presence of misleading articles can make it almost impossible for individuals to fully move on. The public, with just a simple search, can form judgements without understanding the full picture. The potential for misinformation to affect personal relationships, professional opportunities, and even one's own children's perception can be haunting.
From a legal perspective, the complexities of handling such cases are substantial. When engaging with massive entities like Google, the bureaucracy and procedural hurdles can be daunting. The stance that Google initially took in Boris' situation — choosing not to delist the damaging articles due to "public interest" — highlights the uphill battle that many face when trying to remove false or misleading information. Furthermore, it's concerning when systemic biases can influence decisions on such significant matters, as it underscores the importance of persistence and escalating matters to more senior legal teams.
Engaging with newspaper editors adds another layer of intricacy. News outlets have a vested interest in preserving their content for reasons ranging from historical record preservation to site traffic concerns. Convincing them not just to amend, but also to insert code to prevent search engines from indexing certain pages, is no minor feat. It requires a profound understanding of both the legal landscape and the priorities and concerns of media organisations.
In Boris' case, the duality of approach was a testament to both adaptability and strategy. While working with Google was a route filled with protocols and official channels, dealing with news outlets required a more personal touch, emphasising the human element and the profound consequences of these articles on Boris' life.