Tragic Story Shows Limits of Startups Like ReputationDefender

Earlier this month, I wrote a short post about the startup ReputationDefender, whose mission it is to obliterate damaging online information about its clients, who pay it on a month-to-month or yearly basis. (I reported that the company, which had raised a $2.6 million Series A last fall, has expanded that offering and is raising $5.3 million instead.)

The unfortunately reality, however, is that the Redwood City, Calif.-based startup and its sundry competitive peers are powerless to do much more than contact offending Internet sites and ask that they play ball.

The point gets underscored in a current Newsweek piece about the Catsouras family of Orange County. The Catsourases lost one of their four beautiful daughters to a gruesome car accident in 2006. The daughter, who’d become mentally unstable and taken cocaine the night before the accident, was nearly decapitated when she steered her father’s Porsche, stolen from the garage, into a concrete toll booth.

The loss was the realization of her parents’ worst nightmare — until grisly photos of her crash began to circulate online, thanks to two unthinking CHP police officers who thought they were doing their friends and family a service by sending them the pictures to scare them straight. Soon, naturally, the photos were everywhere — including in the inbox of the heartbroken father.

The officers were suspended and one later quit, but to prevent the photos from spreading, the family hired a law firm and ReputationDefender, both of which quickly found themselves hamstrung. Though together they “began tracking the Web sites displaying the photos, issuing cease-and-desist letters, and using advanced coding to make the photos harder to find in a Google search,” reports Newsweek, the tactics were pretty much a bust, “and no amount of programming magic could keep them from spreading to new sites.”

“Long story short, it became a virtually unwinnable battle,” said ReputationDefender founder Michael Fertik to the magazine.

How unwinnable? When the family then tried to sue the CHP for negligence, the superior court judge who heard the case called it an “unfortunate situation.” He then added, “this is America, and there’s a freedom of information.”

That’s not just disheartening for Catsourases, who have appealed the court’s decision, but it’s pretty bad news for the future of ReputationDefender and similar startups. They may be able to promote their customers’ good news, mitigating the damaging links that they’re paid to obscure. Beyond that, it would seem that their customers are on their own.

5 Comments

  • Use the DMCA. Offer to buy the copyrights from the cops and get a list of people the cops gave permission to have the photo. Then send a DMCA takedown notice to everyone else.

    It won’t solve the scale problem but it will be stronger than a cease-and-desist “request” from someone with no copyrights in their pocket.

    Alternatively, ask the photographers to give you power of attorney to issue DMCA requests on their behalf.

    This only works if the photographers are willing to play ball. In this case, that is likely.

  • With regards to ReputationDefender, it should be noted that not all of their clients are in such tragic situations. As a business they take customers from all walks of life, and I know that they routinely “scrub” (read: spam) the Internet for people accused of crimes.

    Beyond that, you are correct. Companies like ReputationDefender have no way, short of sending lawyerly letters, of shutting down content. The best that these types of firms can do is to throw up content with similar keywords to try and obfuscate results.

  • Re: davidwr Says
    Nice idea on using the DMCA. Got me wondering who took the original photos. Might have been those cops or other law enforcement using official camera, etc.
    In that case, the CHP already owns the copyright and with the help of sympathetic judge, might persuade CHP to transfer copyright to the parents.

  • Thank you for your piece. We read it with interest. We have been proud to work for the Catsouras family, who first contacted us in roughly November 2006, for more than two years. As has been reported elsewhere, even as the photos spread quickly in the first weeks and months, we were able to remove virtually all instances of their publication until the family’s story garnered significant national press. At that time, the photos spread with terrible speed, making the job much more difficult. Also has been reported elsewhere, our company (even at its earliest stages, when we had precious few resources) undertook to do a great deal of work for the family at very little cost to them.

    Today, we are proud to have delighted customers in more than 40 countries. Not all of our customers’ stories are well-known–the vast majority aren’t–and many are not tragic. However, we demur from Mr. Smith’s comment that he “know[s] that [we] routinely ‘scrub’ . . . the Internet for people accused of crimes.” We don’t know how Mr. Smith would know such a thing, as it is not true.

  • @ Rich Bialek
    davidwr’s suggestion about purchasing copyright sounds like an interesting idea.
    Would this be a viable solution in similar cases?

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