Protection rackets used to abound in the offline world. Dodgy blokes coming round to your shop and saying:
> Pay us £xx and we'll make sure nothing 'happens' to your windows
Or you park your car on a back-street and some kid comes up to you and says:
> Alright mister, give us a tenner and I'll make sure your car doesn't get nicked
It's a very difficult crime to stop when it happens on a small scale - each individual problem isn't worth the police's time to chase it down and stop it happening. The real money starts rolling in, however, when you co-ordinate the shake-downs and run them as protection rackets. The mafia used to make a lot of money this way - and a lot of the organised crime laws on the statutes were introduced to combat this.
As with so many other things, the web is challenging the limits of our old laws that were designed for an analogue world. Most of the online extortion cases I had heard of up until 6 months ago were blackmail - threats of Denial of Service attacks (where a malicious party threatens to send huge volumes of traffic at a commercial website with the intention of bringing it down temporarily). The police got involved in a few of these - they appeared to take this as seriously as offline blackmail attempts.
In recent months, however, I have become more and more aware of stories of businesses suffering at the hands of an online racket that looks a lot like offline shake-downs. A website called ripoffreport.com is supposedly a place where people can report cases of having been ripped off, but in fact contains a huge number of unverified libellous comments and accusations that are completely baseless, but that rank well in Google for the companies' brand-name searches.
I believe they have been stepping over the line for some time - demanding payments to remove statements (even when those statements are defamatory and untrue), but the backlash is growing:
- Chris Bennett knows more about the problems with ripoffreport than almost anyone - Rand Fishkin picked up the story about how ripoffreport are violating Google's ToS saying it's "shocking that the domain continues to retain its authority" - Andy Beal has also highlighted some dreadful ripoffreport business practices
They can only make the money they do because Google in particular continues to believe that they should rank very well for all kinds of searches for the companies in question. Having been involved in reputation management projects attempting to promote quality content above ripoffreport, I know that it is very hard - for some reason, Google loves them.
As the backlash grows, Google cannot continue to claim not to know about this. It is destroying the businesses of hard-working people and in the interest of 'doing no evil', we would like to join the campaign to ask Google to sort this out.
##Isn't there a place for sites where you can report this kind of thing?
I would like to go on record as saying that sites like tripadvisor are a great part of the internet - allowing consumers to warn one another about businesses that aren't delivering on their promises or that consistently let you down. This isn't about that. This is about publishing untrue reports and then demanding money to remove them.