Ars Technica carried a startling story yesterday about two California lawyers accused of filing "sham lawsuits" in a wide-ranging conspiracy to get Google and other search engines to de-index negative reviews about their clients. As the case (PDF) brought by a group called Consumer Opinion states:
"The other conspirators engaged attorneys Mark W. Lapham ("Lapham") and Owen T. Mascott ("Mascott") to file sham lawsuits either by the subjects of the negative reviews or by corporations that had no interest in the allegedly defamatory statements, against a defendant who most certainly was not the party that published the allegedly defamatory statements, and the parties immediately stipulated to a judgment of injunctive relief, so the conspirators could provide the order to Google and other search engines, thus achieving the goal of deindexing all pages containing negative reviews."
Consumer Opinion runs pissedconsumer.com, and the group says these lawyers manipulated California's legal system by conducting a "rather brilliant but incredibly unethical" scheme to make negative reviews on the site essentially disappear from search results. The suit asks a federal judge to "discipline them for those misdeeds."
The suit notes a complex web of reputation companies and fake or "stooge" defendants working together. According to the lawsuit, it works like this: the attorneys sue the "stooge" authors of negative reviews—allegedly defamatory reviews that are published on the pissedconsumer.com site. But these lawsuit defendants didn't actually write the review, and the suits immediately settle. The judgments are then used to get Yahoo, Google, and Bing to erase negative reviews from search results. The suit alleges that a Florida attorney, the subject of some 59 negative reviews on pissedconsumer.com, was among the beneficiaries of the alleged scheme.
Yikes. If true, these attorneys are headed for all kinds of trouble – I can only imagine how the state bar disciplinary folks would view such conduct.
Apparently, this isn't the first time we've seen these type of allegedly fake lawsuits try to game search results, according to Paul Alan Levy of Public Citizen and Eugene Volokh of the Volokh Conspiracy. The duo has concluded that there are at least 25 cases nationwide with what they call a "suspicious profile."
"Of these 25-odd cases, 15 give the addresses of the defendants—but a private investigator hired by Professor Volokh (Giles Miller of Lynx Insights & Investigations) couldn't find a single one of the ostensible defendants at the ostensible address," they wrote. As they point out, search engines presented with a court order "can't really know if the injunction was issued against the actual author of the supposed defamation—or against a real person at all."
This kind of gaming the system is deplorable – and the involvement of lawyers, if proven, is a disgrace.
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Digital Forensics/Information Security/Information Technology