The Man Who Spent $100K To Remove A Lie From Google


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The all tech considered section of National Public Radio Inc (US) published on April 3rd a story by Aarti Shahani, who originally broadcast her news report out of San Francisco.

This published article of hers (which is about the victim's story) is titled 'The Man Who Spent $100K To Remove A Lie From Google'. That man is American Jeff Ervine. The lie came from someone he'd turned in to the authorities, a person who apparently now lives in Turkey.

Mr Ervine's story was positioned by all tech considered as an example of The New Clash between Free Speech and Privacy (strapline). To me, it’s more than just that.

But for now, I’m not finding the words to articulate just what.

There seems to be at least 3 different strands to my intertwining thoughts. ….One that goes along the path of: the self-serving/self-preserving actions of Net giants make them enablers of injustice perpetuated. ….Another about what passes for social discourse these days, in the US especially, that splits along the lines of (a) folk on soapboxes wanting to take down tall poppies & (b) those who are deep in the mindset of oppressed poor, let’s take any opportunity to shaft it to the rich, regardless of merit.

OK, here’s Ms Shahani’s article:

In Europe, if there's a webpage with information about you that you don't like — because it's either inaccurate or just too personal — you can make Google hide it from search results. Google has done exactly that with more than 1 million pages in Europe. It's part of a growing legal movement in Europe that grants people "a right to be forgotten" on the Internet.

In the U.S., however, even in the most dire cases, the law doesn't protect people that way.

Jeff Ervine had a great career. He was chief operating officer of a hedge fund that managed over $1 billion, and then he started his own fund.

But in 2010, things took a dark turn. After some professional contacts overseas told him to check out Google search results about him, he was shocked by what he discovered: The first result when he searched his name was a website called Con v. Con. He clicked on it and saw a picture of himself, dressed in a tuxedo, standing beside his wife, who was in an evening gown.

The site warned that Ervine was actually a con artist who tried to trick a "know nothing" kid into a "sweet heart deal."

"It was very dark," he recalls.

The author of the website, a 26-year-old named Hakan Yalincak, wanted to take down Ervine for having helped the law put the young man behind bars.

The two had first met years earlier, when Yalincak and his parents wanted to set up a fund to invest their money. They came to Ervine for help. They were accompanied by what seemed like just the right cast of characters: Their lawyers were from an elite Chicago firm; their bankers vouched for the millions in their accounts; New York University, where Yalincak was a student, was going to name a building on West 4th Street in Manhattan after the family.

But little things bothered Ervine from the beginning. Subtle social cues seemed off. Unlike other rich people, these folks didn't talk about fancy schools or vacation destinations. Nor was there any name-dropping — social norms he had gotten used to in his dealings with the filthy rich.

"That's part of their bravado and their egos," Ervine says. "But the Turks and Caicos never came up. Art Basel never came up."

Then one night, Ervine met the family for dinner at a Victorian house converted into a farm-to-table restaurant in the New York area. After dessert, Yalincak said his driver would be coming to get him. But out on the curb, Ervine spotted him jumping into a beat-up cab.

"The hair stood up on the back of my neck," Ervine says.

He called a friend — a military veteran with contacts at the FBI — and soon the bureau unearthed a suspicious legal trail and launched a criminal investigation. In that case, Ervine handed over the information he had collected on the family and spoke with law enforcement.

He thought the matter was over. Yalincak was convicted of fraud, sentenced to 42 months in prison and then deported.

But from Turkey, he wanted to make Ervine pay for his actions. The website Con v. Con was designed to destroy Ervine's reputation.

At first Ervine shrugged it off. But then prospective clients and partners kept bringing it up. "I'd spend the first 15 minutes explaining the story" in every meeting, he says. It had happened right after the financial crisis and the Bernie Madoff scandal — not a great time to try to explain yourself.

Ervine knew he couldn't talk any sense into his attacker. But he assumed he could get Google on his side. He had lawyers fax and mail a letter to Google's chief counsel, with a simple request: Please stop highlighting this site in search results. Google ignored the request. Ervine was shocked.

"You are helpless and you're hopeless. And what can you do? It's like slut-shaming or anything else that goes on on the Internet today," he says.

Google holds the position that in the U.S., it's not obligated to remove defamatory content or lies from search results. It'll consider it if there is a court finding. Even then, it's really up to Google's discretion. So Ervine's lawyers sued the website creator. It took more than a year — to establish jurisdiction, to serve the papers overseas and to win the case.

The final court hearing was extraordinary. Judge James Holderman, of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, apologized to Ervine on behalf of the American justice system. "You, in my opinion, have done everything right — you have been a model citizen, you have assisted your government in exposing and prosecuting fraud on other people — and then you are victimized," he said for the court record. "I wish I could do more."

Ervine's lawyers rushed to Google with the judgment. And then it took a few months for Google to respond that yes, the company would help; then another month to actually do it.

No wonder that winning didn't feel like victory for Ervine.

In fact, even after Google stopped listing the defamatory site, the search page added a disclaimer — in red letters — that Ervine's results had been altered. It looked like he had something to hide, not like Google had made the mistake of highlighting false information. This warning remained in effect for months, even though it doesn't appear any longer.

"There's no humanity or kindness in Google. It's not about anyone else. It's all about Google," Ervine says.

NPR submitted a summary of his case to Google for response. A spokesman said he isn't certain why even after Ervine won his judgment it took Google so long to take down its reference to the malicious website. And then the spokesman added: "We don't comment on individual cases."

Ervine's lawyer Charles Lee Mudd Jr., who has represented dozens of Americans defamed online, says, "It truly happens to be a wild world on the Internet."

But in Europe, it's a different world. In response to new privacy rules imposed by the EU, Google has buried more than 1 million pages on that continent because the subjects of those pages say that the content is unreliable or simply too personal. In the U.S., no such "right to be forgotten" exists.

Ervine says his reputation was damaged and it hurt his career. Today, he is building a tech company called Bridg-it, to protect people like him who have been attacked online. He doesn't want anyone else to pay like he did. All told, Ervine spent about $100,000 in legal fees. In Europe, he would have just filled out a form.