Judge Orders ALL Search Engines, Social Networks to De-index Seized Websites

A Nevada District Court case has ruled in favor of Chanel, allowing the company to take down over 800 domain names that sell counterfeit products. The ruling also mandated that Google and others de-index the suspect properties.

The Chanel v “Defendants” Case

judge-cartoonIn a November 14 order, Kent J. Dawson (United States District Judge in Nevada) gave Chanel permission to seize 228 domains that, Chanel claimed, were selling counterfeit goods. Further, Dawson gave Chanel permission to change redirects and other settings via Google Webmaster Tools or other online utilities.

But control of the domains isn’t all that Chanel won. Dawson ruled that “Subject Domain Names shall immediately be de-indexed and/or removed from any search results pages of all Internet search engines including, but not limited to, Google, Bing, and Yahoo, and all social media websites including, but not limited to, Facebook, Google+, and Twitter.” Beyond standard de-indexing, this implies that social media sites will have to censor user-posted links.

The 228 domains are just the most recent; Chanel previously received permission to seize more than 600 domains.

After seizure, the original webmasters retain the rights to the content and can hypothetically re-post to a new domain, and at least some webmasters who registered their domains in a foreign country haven’t had their domains seized. Visitors who attempt to go to a seized domain are now redirected to a page showing details of the Chanel case ruling.

The hundreds of webmasters whose domains were pulled weren’t given notice until after the domains had already been seized. The judge who made the ruling allowed Chanel’s evaluation, which for the most part involved examination of sites by a Chanel counterfeit expert; less than 2 percent of the most recent batch of sites had their products evaluated in the non-virtual world.

Is the Ruling Crazy?

Reactions to the story are varied. Some feel this judge was extending well beyond his jurisdiction for a District Court ruling by handing control of hundreds of sites (owned by webmasters across the globe) and a chunk of the Google index (property of a California-based business) over to Chanel (a New York–based company). Others feel that the companies whose domains were seized needed to be given a more full and fair evaluation. Still others are deeply concerned about the idea of sites being censored at all.

While there are plenty of legitimate worries to bring up here, I want to remind you that you’re probably not as unilaterally opposed to censorship as you think; you’re probably just opposed to certain types of censorship. For example, an email spam filter is a form of private “censorship,” as is the SERP positioning for any given query. Even pulling certain sites down completely isn’t a terrible tragedy to most of us; my guess is you’re fine with a legal ruling stopping a child pornography site.

Yet the problem of counterfeit products is still very real, so what should be done?

Rich Skrenta, CEO of Blekko, believes the solution lies in new web technology, including ideas of expert search curation (as presented by Blekko search), social vetting (as with Facebook), and user-driven responses to questions (as with Quora). Skrenta also notes that “Bing admits it is using its own editors to curate results,” so there are some potential in-house solutions as well.

But the problem with the legal ruling is also about effectiveness. “Having a federal judge curating a multibillion-page search index is a little like putting a finger in the hole of the dam without realizing there are 100 more holes draining the same lake,” says Skrenta. But he doesn’t deny that something needs to be done: “If we need spam filters to protect us from malicious email attacks, then we also need something to protect us from getting ripped off by phony web sites or having our computers trashed because we click on a malicious link in search results.”

What do you think? Whose rights are at stake here, and whose should be prioritized? Should the government be doing more to protect users from online scams? What additional countermeasures should Google be implementing? What should be legally mandatory? Sound off in the comments.

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