Google is dangerous
August 20, 2010 2:59 AM   Subscribe

My sister has a stalker and there is information about her online that she cannot remove. Help!

Posting for my sister:

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I have a very dangerous, stalker ex-boyfriend. He's not very computer literate, but I'm sure he could figure out Google. I have a somewhat common name, but if you know a few facts about me, it's easy to narrow it down and figure out which one is me and thus where I work.

A newspaper article was published recently about me for something good I did. It wasn't really a "news event", more a kind of brief profile. The reporter asked me for some background about myself and I got a bit overexcited and told him some personal facts about myself, which he published. I don't want my ex to use those personal facts to distinguish me from all of the other people with my name through Google and thus find out where I am now.

I contacted the newspaper and the reporter and asked them to change a few minor details (not related to the story), such as the name of my hometown. They refused on the basis that it is part of the "permanent record". I contacted a few lawyers. They want to charge me a few THOUSAND dollars, write some nasty letters to the newspaper with documentation about the ex, but think I have a very low chance of getting anything done for my money.

This all happened in the US. Is there anything I can do? Do I have to change my name to escape?
posted by alternateuniverse to Law & Government (38 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Did she tell the paper why she wants it changed? Is there some sort of bigger city that her city is a part of? Something like how Evans is understood as being in Augusta or Mt. Pleasant and James Island are understood to be part of Charleston.
posted by theichibun at 3:03 AM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Could you ask the newspaper not to change it, but to take it offline instead?
posted by Triton at 3:14 AM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I would immediately contact a battered women's shelter. They don't justprovide housing--they may offer free legal advice and may have community connections to the newspaper and could advocate on your behalf.


If this is something that's already been run (printed, posted, etc) then their hands may really be tied. They can print retractions (which wouldn't help you) but I imagine they can't just change something that's been printed and move forward as if it hadn't been printed.
posted by vitabellosi at 3:16 AM on August 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Perhaps she cannot get the source article changed, but there may be a way for her to get the newspaper to contact Google and get that particular article removed from search results. Seems like it would be a reasonable compromise, at least. Here's what Google has to say about it:

If you want to remove content from Google's search results, that content should first be removed from the web or blocked from search engines. ... The site owner can remove the concerning information from the page, take the page down from the web entirely, or indicate that Google shouldn't crawl or index the page.

It seems unreasonable to me that they would refuse to consider this option if she is able to provide them a decent explanation.

I wonder also if there is some legal aid she could access, perhaps through a local domestic abuse support service. A search for "women's legal aid" brings up a bunch of options, at least in my area.
posted by Ouisch at 3:23 AM on August 20, 2010


To follow up:

She called a few women's shelters and even the national center for battered women (or whatever it's called) and they haven't dealt with this before and couldn't help. They are used to certain standard things (custody, getting restraining orders), and don't know what to do. They did refer her to some lawyers as mentioned. She also tried libel lawyers and a friend of hers that used to work for (a different) newspaper.

Also, she asked them to take the page down or make it un-Googleable first. The changing of a few details was a compromise, but they said no to that too. She also told them the reasons why.

It's not a local newspaper in her hometown. It's a newspaper with national reach, because she was involved in something that they had a human interest story about.

I'm really worried about her safety. If something happens to her, is there a case against the newspaper? This is really sucks.
posted by alternateuniverse at 4:00 AM on August 20, 2010


Publications often have a boilerplate answer that "we can't make those kinds of changes for X technical reason," because people are always trying to get reporters to make changes to stories. The person she spoke with has probably not pursued the issue beyond this point. I say be persistent, keep asking for the higher-up in charge, even if she has to hound them until she can speak with the publisher. Persistently squeaky wheels are much more likely to get the grease, and it's worth spending the time to make it easier for them to make a tiny change than to keep taking her (and your?) calls.
posted by taz at 4:11 AM on August 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


How long ago did the article appear? Some newspapers archive their articles after a few weeks, at which point the article disappears behind a paywall.
posted by MegoSteve at 5:02 AM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


You really don't have any legal recourse. The first amendment really gives all power to a newspaper that prints fact in a story. If it was libelous, then you'd have a case. The newspaper is very highly unlikely to be held liable if she is injured as a result of this as it was done in good faith by the paper and especially because it was done based on the information you provided. Though, keep in mind, IANAL.

Newspapers don't like to set precedent for making changes to something that has already been published if it is true. In their eyes, the genie is already out of the bottle and, in many ways it is. If it's a national publication, it likely is already available on Lexis/Nexis and will be no matter how ungoogleable it may become on the newspaper's page.
posted by inturnaround at 5:14 AM on August 20, 2010


Memail me and I'll try to see if I can find pro bono counsel for her.
posted by yarly at 5:21 AM on August 20, 2010 [6 favorites]


I wonder if the newspaper has an ombudsperson or something similar? For instance, the Washington Post has an ombudsman and it looks like the New York Times has a public editor who "represents the readers." Someone in that role might be a better advocate for your sister than the reporter. Good luck!
posted by kittydelsol at 5:25 AM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Dude, yarly is the awesome!

I might be overly cautious, but if this were me I would seriously think about moving. This depends entirely on the practical details of her life and the threat level.

Alternately she could consider increasing her level of security - there's lots of stuff from home protection to secure vehicles to legal, trained handgun carrying, to body guards. There are little gps alarms you can carry.

It all depends on her preferences and circumstances, but taking control of her security is empowering and awesome.
posted by By The Grace of God at 5:27 AM on August 20, 2010


Additionally, the problem with removing the article is there are cached copies everywhere.

Also if this is in the US, she might consider changing her name.
posted by By The Grace of God at 5:29 AM on August 20, 2010


I really, really try to keep my limited gun opinions off of metafilter, but I must say that giving a relatively untrained shooter a .22 with which to shoot an already angry and potentially batshit insane person is a really bad idea.

Guns are hard to aim without practice. In stressful situations guns are hard to aim without a lot of practice in similar stressful situations. While the argument may be made that a .22 is easier to aim than something bigger, it's still not a piece of cake.

Which brings me to my potentially controversial point.

If I were to consider a gun for my home, I would want something that would kill my intruder. Something large and easy to aim. If you put a small hole in an angry person, you have earned yourself an angry, bloody person. And if you kill someone in your home, you've likely collected some pretty heavy emotional trauma in the act.

Please do not encourage your sister to get a gun.

Also, guns ought to be stored unloaded in locked, hard to reach places. The stalker isn't going to give a time out while you pull the shells out from under the bed and take them to your gun safe.

As for what she can do in this situation, perhaps there is someone at google she can contact? Either way, continue to find the names of people with greater authority at the newspaper. Might this end up on the publishers desk? If she's persistent and everyone else fails her, maybe. But she really should be asking for people by name. Nobody likes being told 'since you can't help me, I'd like to talk to your supervisor.' No matter how nicely you say it.
posted by bilabial at 5:45 AM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I would immediately contact a battered women's shelter. They don't justprovide housing--they may offer free legal advice and may have community connections to the newspaper and could advocate on your behalf.

This is a really crazy characterization of what a women's domestic violence shelter is and does. Please do not waste peoples time here by directing women to shelters where they give out "free legal advice," this is not how the system works on any planet that I have practiced social work on.
posted by The Straightener at 5:56 AM on August 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


The Cops? See what they might state. If lawyers are going to charge money to be nasty for you, then perhaps the cops might do it for free. If you have fairly warned the newspaper that keeping that information online poses a substantial risk to your safety, then either their legal dept. might freak out or if you get law enforcement involved, they'll see how serious it is. Or, if he's not so bright, try set up some diverting information.....alternative facebook account, etc -- throw him off his game. I'd definitely change phone numbers and Id info that I can.
posted by skepticallypleased at 6:11 AM on August 20, 2010


Let's assume that you can't get the article down, or that cached copies of it remain lingering throughout the Internet. What you need to do is build up a false identity of [common name - I'm just going to refer to your sister as Jane] in [Jane's city]. This way, if the ex-bf finds the article and starts searching on that name/city combo this other person is the most common search result.

First, get a throwaway email acct that incorporates the name somehow. Then use that to make a Facebook account. Set that up with Jane's first/last name. Fill out some profile info, definitely including [current city]. For interests, pick some bands in a genre of music ex-bf knows you don't like. Specifically find some local bands and make them interests and "like" them. Pick whatever do-gooder org Jane was involved with as an interest. Make her a few years older than Jane. Upload a profile picture that could not be mistaken for Jane. Pick a different birth city. Start friending people at random until some start friending you back. If necessary, start playing Farmville or Mafia Wars to find random friends. Build up about 50 friends.

Leave all this info in public in Facebook, but make all Wall posts private (so he can't see you aren't making any). The idea here being that he finds the name/city in the article and a facebook search now leads here and makes him less certain he has found Jane for sure. Obviously if Jane is already on Facebook she should change her name and lock everything down, if not get off facebook entirely.

Next, make this identity more likely to show up in Google.

Go to a website for one of the city's newspapers or tv stations that allow for comments on stories. Sign up with a username containing Jane's full name. Make a few inane comments on some stories ("WOW!" or "This is so sad" or "What is wrong with people?"). Get in the habit of leaving a few comments a week. Do not write any long comments.

Find some local bands with websites with discussion boards. Sign up with a username containing Jane's full name. Put in the city for location. Upload the facebook pic as an avatar. Link back to the facebook page as "homepage". Make some short "me too!" type comments in a few threads ("Great show!" "I sing [songname] all day long!").

Make a twitter account using Jane's full name. Put the city name in as a location. Put the Facebook page as homepage. Make a few short tweets about "checking out twitter". You can abandon this account after a couple of lame tweets ("can't wait to see band x" "Yay [local sports team]").

Make a LinkedIn account. Pick a field Jane has no interest in. Fill out location info. You don't need to enter any job info. Just leave the public profile showing name, location, industry, interests. Use the facebook pic in her profile.

NEVER respond to any sort of contacts sent to you through any of these accounts. Ignore all. If ex-bf emails trying to see if it is Jane, ignore. Do not try to respond as her fake persona. Assume any other contacts by anyone are attempts to trip you up. Initiate all friend requests in Facebook. Do not accept any friend requests.

If you are feeling ambitious, do a few variations on these (different middle names, email providers, social networks, pictures, local sports team/charity/arts focus instead of bands, etc.).

Good luck.
posted by mikepop at 6:24 AM on August 20, 2010 [85 favorites]


The Cops? See what they might state. If lawyers are going to charge money to be nasty for you, then perhaps the cops might do it for free. If you have fairly warned the newspaper that keeping that information online poses a substantial risk to your safety, then either their legal dept. might freak out or if you get law enforcement involved, they'll see how serious it is.

Any national-type paper has a legal team that is well-versed in first amendment law. They had every right to print what they did. She asked the paper to unpublish, they declined. She asked them to make it less searchable, they declined. The information even came from her. It was a mistake on her part, not he newspaper, and they guard their rights jealously.

It sucks that she made a mistake in giving the paper the interview, but I really don't see the paper being scared of a suit that they will almost certainly win (and may be able to recover money for their defending themselves against the suit) and I don't see the police getting involved with the paper at all because there's been no laws broken.

I'm really not without sympathy to her plight, but the only thing you can rely on is what you can do, not what others may be able to do for you. For her, that would be a move.
posted by inturnaround at 6:24 AM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Depends on the type of paper, but she should make her request in writing, and send it to a variety of people including the reporter, section editor, ONLINE editor, editor-in-chief, and publisher. She should be very clear and detailed about the threat level and it wouldn't be the worst thing if she exaggerated a bit. Her requests should be quite simple-- to either take the article off google, or to redact her hometown.

The argument about lexis nexis is true but irrelevant if he's not very computer-literate.
posted by acidic at 6:32 AM on August 20, 2010


Nb: he could hire a private investigator to find her, who definitely does have lexis.
posted by By The Grace of God at 6:53 AM on August 20, 2010


Sounds like your sister is living with a lot of fear, and I can only imagine the distress she's experienced. My thoughts are with her.

I am a journalist, and I must agree with inturnaround that from the newspaper's point of view, the responsibility lies with your sister for knowingly divulging information on the record to a journalist.

One way to put pressure on the paper might be to see if a rival paper can run some coverage on the issue - maybe there's a columnist or blogger who writes on women's issues who would like to take this up and write about it in a column (using your sister as an anonymous case study, of course)...? The threat of bad publicity may give her some leverage.

While I don't know what she's been through, I would like to say that constantly living in fear of this guy seems to be ruining her life, and maybe she would benefit from taking some control of the situation. Personal defence classes may give her some confidence. And therapy may help deal with the fear.

Also this guy sounds like he can't be that good at stalking if he didn't know where she lives or works previous to the publication to the article. Maybe he's given up - fingers crossed.

Good luck with everything.
posted by dawn_chorus at 6:54 AM on August 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think your sister should be prioritizing dealing with the stalker, not dealing with every source that could provide any personal information to anyone who might be interested in stalking her.

I am very surprised that the local women's shelter has never dealt with stalking in the past.

She should start with her own workplace - informing coworkers and management that this is going on and that the stalker may have access to information online which could lead him to the office. Instructing them not to forward outside calls from unknown callers, not to allow unauthorized outside visitors. Even if the person says "oh, she knows who I am" or "I'm a friend". I once had a stalker, and because I worked in a customer service context I was very afraid that he would figure out where I worked and come in to harass me. So I told my immediate supervisor about it - she assured me that if that happened, I'd have her support and we'd deal with the situation as best we could.

If she is afraid for her safety, has she looked into a restraining order?
posted by Sara C. at 7:34 AM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, and in my stalker experience, what happened was that my friends and coworkers rallied to my defense (having physically imposing male friends was very lucky, in this case) and my stalker gave up and moved on eventually.

I also had to get rid of a few online accounts, like livejournal, and change my phone number and email address. Moving also gave me the assurance that the guy wouldn't be able to find me, though I didn't move only because of the stalker. I hate to tell her that she should change her phone number and email address, and possibly move, but it might be the easiest way to end this.
posted by Sara C. at 7:40 AM on August 20, 2010


You don't need a lawyer. Your sister can write the same kinds of letters to the newspaper, with the same information, but you don't have any legal grounds at all to stand on. The newspapers didn't publish wrong or untrue information, they just published information you wish now you hadn't told them. If they agreed to change it for whatever reason, they'd be setting a dangerous precedent.

Asking someone to do an article about is just going to feed the fire. It's going to provide yet more data for the ex.

I really like the fake profiles idea above to throw him off.
posted by micawber at 7:41 AM on August 20, 2010


If he doesn't know where she lives or works, how do you know he's stalking her?

Also, why haven't you gotten a restraining order? Do that now.

Self-defense classes wouldn't hurt (a good skill to have even on general terms). Don't buy a gun.
posted by schmod at 7:45 AM on August 20, 2010


Mikepop has it. I was intending to post something to that effect. Changing the search results to look as though it is not really you is what you should be concentrating on- don't waste your time on the newspaper.

I speak from experience with having this type of relationship problem, so let's consider a couple of things.

First, you don't say how long ago this boyfriend became an ex or how far apart your sister thinks they are currently located. Does she know that he is actively searching for her right now? If he's been an ex for quite some time, there's a very good chance he's moved on to a violent relationship with someone new.

Second (An important question), does she have reason to think that he suspects she lives in her current town? If not, then it's not likely that he's reading her local paper in the first place. Has she googled her name to see if it even brings up that newspaper article at the top of the search results? You said her name is fairly common, so there's a good chance that newspaper article may not even register with all the other random hits associated with her common name.

Like Mikepop said, even if she were successful in getting the paper to make changes, there's still a caching problem and the possibility of other references online to that article. My advice is first evaluate how sure of a threat this is (based on points one and two). If it's a recent breakup, she knows he's actively looking for her, and she feels very strongly that he will see that article and use it to locate her: then move. Seriously. Just move and don't make that mistake with publicizing your identity again. But if these aren't strong possibilities, then just let the article fade into oblivion (it probably already has) and focus on making the fake links and references that Mikepop suggested.
posted by Eicats at 8:13 AM on August 20, 2010


I forgot to stress that even with a lawyer, the damage is already done and it isn't likely you will get the newspaper to make the article disappear.
posted by Eicats at 8:14 AM on August 20, 2010


One thing I forgot to mention above which is too late for your sister, but perhaps useful for others in the future:

Instead of contacting the newspaper and asking them to remove or alter the article, which they will almost always decline to do, contact them and helpfully point out that they have misspelled your name slightly and ask if it's possible for them to fix it. Something like "MacKenzie instead of McKenzie" or "Sandee not Sandy" etc. Nothing extreme. Preferably the last name. Just something little to through an exact name search off a bit. Make sure you alter your "from" name when you email them or better yet use correctedname@gmail.com.

They still might not go to the bother of fixing it, especially if it is an old article, but you have much better odds with this request.
posted by mikepop at 8:21 AM on August 20, 2010 [12 favorites]


through throw
posted by mikepop at 8:23 AM on August 20, 2010


Listen to mikepop, the man is a genius. I wouldn't have thought of those ideas but they should help enormously (and be rather fun at the same time).
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 9:10 AM on August 20, 2010


Mikepop, those are brilliant ideas. I wish I had thought of the name change thing.

For everyone else, she is going to school and can't change locations easily (without transferring her degree elsewhere). The program she's in is perfect for her.

Also, it is really, really hard to get a restraining order. TV makes it look easy. She has tried. Where she lives, you have to show that you have recently been physically harmed by the person, or that you are in imminent danger. Like they are camped out on your front lawn. It's really horrible.
posted by alternateuniverse at 9:41 AM on August 20, 2010


Elcats, thanks for your questions. The relationship was a while ago, thank God. But it is a t the top of the search results for her name. It's not a super common name and easy to narrow down by (small) city she lives in.
posted by alternateuniverse at 9:58 AM on August 20, 2010


This is a really crazy characterization of what a women's domestic violence shelter is and does. Please do not waste peoples time here by directing women to shelters where they give out "free legal advice," this is not how the system works on any planet that I have practiced social work on.

sorry Straightener---I should have said something like "they may be more familiar with this type of problem and have so
e recommendations to make, including connecting her with affordable legal services"...it was just a little longer than I was prepared to write at the time.

Being familiar with the services provided in my town, this seemed like reasonable advise. Particularly if he is dangerous, physically. Perhaps the services offered in my town are stellar and not the norm.

I am confident, however, that an agency dealing with domestic violence victims would be willing to take the call, and graciously explain the scope and limits of their services. I have also found that the people heading up these types of groups are well-respected leaders in their communities and may have a more direct, collegial path to lawyers, newspaper editors, etc from whom they could get a better sense of the options, than your average Josephina.
posted by vitabellosi at 11:52 AM on August 20, 2010


I think (and if I weren't so cyber-ignorant I would know) there are companies that manage one's on-line reputation by generating huge numbers of hits for sites that mention you in a positive or innocuous way and thus put potentially embarrassing sites further down the list. Is this an option here?
posted by wjm at 11:54 AM on August 20, 2010


I am confident, however, that an agency dealing with domestic violence victims would be willing to take the call, and graciously explain the scope and limits of their services. I have also found that the people heading up these types of groups are well-respected leaders in their communities and may have a more direct, collegial path to lawyers, newspaper editors, etc from whom they could get a better sense of the options, than your average Josephina.

I'm sorry, but I don't know anyone providing these services in Philadelphia that has the time to locate pro bono legal counsel or contact newspaper editors on behalf of someone who doesn't qualify for services (as the poster's sister discovered) at the moment and probably doesn't qualify for the type of legal services urban domestic violence shelters make referrals to, which are typically for extremely poor women who have no other resources or recourse to get these services. It's a recurring issue on AskMe where people who do not qualify for free legal services are given the false hope that they do by people who don't understand how accessing these services work. If you are a young professional with a job, you are not going to qualify for legal aid, you just won't, because income guidelines for qualifying for these services are very strict and then the demand is so overwhelming that legal aid attorneys typically focus first on the neediest among the extremely needy clients applying for representation. There is no free lawyer store where young professionals can pop in and grab a lawyer. That the poster's sister might not have the money to be able to hire a private attorney is a different matter, and finding that kind of pro bono legal counsel is not going to be a service that a DV shelter provides. I have gotten this kind of pro bono representation for women clients in domestic violence situations before and it took a lot of wrangling between a lawyer on the board of directors of my agency and a private attorney who after enough arm twisting became willing to take the cases pro bono. She's better off using her professional networks to contact private attorneys who can help her than she is going to the publicly funded urban domestic violence system.
posted by The Straightener at 12:15 PM on August 20, 2010


You might try looking at the National Center for Victims of Crime Stalking Resource Center. The Website has a bunch of things, but contacting them directly might be helpful.
posted by Gorgik at 8:15 AM on August 21, 2010


Still think writing at least a semi-threatening letter from a lawyer (should take 2-3 hours max) to the newspaper scare them if they are small + risk averse and they'll renege. Good luck. Stay very safe also.
posted by skepticallypleased at 8:49 AM on August 21, 2010


Thanks for clarifying a few points. But I guess I would still go for creating some false links to muddy the waters of the search results a bit. And I know you're right about the protection order: I kind of hate to say this, but at least if he does try to contact her because of this article, that will give you recent harrassment to use for a new petition for a protection order. An immediate family member works for the domestic violence chapter in my hometown, so I know that if you came in with information that he tracked her down in a new location- along with the history of violence- I know that the SAAF program (or local DV group) would help her try to get a protection order.

But that's worse case scenario. I still am betting the odds that he's moved on. Create some of those dummy links, just in case. (fingers crossed for you and good luck!)
posted by Eicats at 10:06 AM on August 25, 2010


> There is no free lawyer store where young professionals can pop in and grab a lawyer.

Actually, you mentioned that your sister is a student. I agree that it's unlikely a lawyer can do anything in this instance, but both Universities I've been to have had free law clinics for students who need some quick legal advice.... Good to know for future, if she needs some help with that restraining order.
posted by DecemberRaine at 2:37 PM on September 21, 2010


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