The short answer is: Yes. But it’s not easy. It’s pretty common that every week I’ll get a call or email from a small business owner, or another attorney (who represents a small business owner) asking about how to get a negative/bad review of their product or service removed from Yelp! or from appearing at the top of Google search results for their business. Usually the offending review/post was written by some anonymous individual, which makes things more complicated (discussed below), and they business owner or attorney may have already tried contacting the website and requested removal, to no avail. Every time this happens, I say the same thing:
If the content is truly defamatory, then yes, you can get it removed. Then we have a short discussion about the definition of defamation, and a few examples of what is/isn’t defamatory. Sometimes the answer is pretty easy, but oftentimes it isn’t, and in those situations you can run into trouble getting the content removed because the comments may be protected by the First Amendment. If we make it through these preliminary considerations, it then comes down to how badly you want the content removed, because unless the poster of the defamatory content yields to a cease & desist/demand letter, it usually takes a court order to defamatory content taken down from the internet.
For example, if you go to Google’s “Removing Content From Google” page, you’ll find a list of the various services/sites Google operates; here, we’re talking about Google search engine content, so you would select the G-Suite logo “Web Search” button. This takes you to a menu, and since none of the options accurately include removing defamatory content, you would select “I have a legal issue that is not mentioned above.” The next menu has an option for “I have located defamatory content in Google’s search results.” To proceed further, however, you will have to have an order issued by a court of law, which also requires you to fill out this court order form.
That’s great, if you already have the court order, but what if you don’t—how do you get a court order? This is where the process become difficult, especially for non-lawyers. Before a court can issue an order, you have to create a case, and request relief that the court has the authority to grant. This means filing a lawsuit. Here, you’d need to file a complaint for defamation against the person/entity responsible for the defamatory web content. If the poster’s identity is unknown, you have to sue them as “John Doe,” and then follow additional steps to serve a subpoena on the website hosting the defamatory content, which will usually allow you to at least discover the IP address responsible for the defamatory post. Once you have the IP address, you can serve another subpoena on the Internet Service Provider associated with the IP address, requesting the account holder’s identity (which may or may not be the same person who posted the defamatory content). But you still aren’t entitled to a court order yet, because you haven’t demonstrated that you’re entitled to any relief. You will have to proceed through the lawsuit, and present evidence that the defendant posted defamatory content about you. Only then will the court grant you relief, and issue a takedown order to Google, et al.
For most people, this process is intimidating, and time consuming at best, which is why they hire a law firm to handle it. Because the law is always catching up to technology, defamation law is still catching up to the internet. Perhaps the future will bring easier, faster, less daunting ways of removing defamatory content from the internet, but in the meantime there are law firms that specialize in exactly this kind of work.