There Aren’t Many Ways To Do Online Reputation Management Right, And This Isn’t One Of Them

A couple of weeks ago, Eric Goldman posted an article at Forbes discussing an attempt by a company called Infringex to get him to remove a post from his personal blog. The notice sent to Goldman was riddled with mangled legal terminology (“infringement of defamation”) and misconceptions (defamation is “the taking of someone’s reputation”) and was signed by Randi Glazer, the supposed “victim” of a post by “perma-guest” blogger, Venkat Balasubramani.

As Goldman points out, he was under no legal compunction to entertain this request — if only for the reason that a request was all it was.

It further says that my actions are “unjust” and asks me to “please be kind” and remove the content. However, the notice is cagey about any alleged legal violations.

The services offered by Infringex carry no legal weight. This much was admitted to me by Alex Marshall, the owner of the company. He refers to his company’s offerings as “self-help documents” that help enforce “common law rights.” In order to avoid “unauthorized practice of law,” he says his company does not assist in the selection of documents or otherwise advise customers of their legal rights.

Instead, he portrays his company’s services as a slightly-more-official-looking way to send requests to remove content. Infringex’s services start at $140 — a price that seems a little high for “Would you kindly…” letters to site owners. As confirmed by Marshall, there are no refunds for the documents’ failure to get content removed. Marshall points to the site’s terms of use, which clearly state that users are on their own (and out $140+) if the requests are unsuccessful.

6. OUTCOMES. The parties agree the self-help forms provided by INFRINGEX do not constitute professional legal advice and may not be appropriate for every legal situation. INFRINGEX asserts and you hereby accept that there is no guarantee the use of the self-help forms provided by INFRINGEX will result in a successful outcome to your legal matter.

The terms of use also point out that takedown requests may result in negative backlash, as well as Infringex being unable to prevent anyone else (including the target of the original request) from reposting the disputed content.

Is asking site owers nicely (but sternly) to remove content worth $140 and up? I asked Marshall this question. He said Infringex “adds value” by being able to find the right person to contact for content removal, as well as being rather skilled at navigating circuitous systems meant to discourage those seeking content removal. (He cites Facebook, in particular, as being more than a little opaque in this area.)

But despite being upfront with me — as well as in the site’s terms of use — that Infringex has no legal basis for most of its request letters and that most recipients are completely free to ignore these takedown attempts with no negative consequences, the site itself sends mixed messages. On its “Services” page, it states that Infringex offers “legal documents,” something it clearly (and admittedly, by its own Chief Officer) does not do.

You can hire a lawyer and begin legal proceedings, or you can choose to send an affordable legal document to address the problem right now with infringex.com. Send them a legal document designed to give you a quick resolution.

But there’s nothing “legal” about these documents. Anyone can send one for any reason, provided they pay the fee. The hodgepodge of legal lingo, along with the “professional” border, are designed to give receipients of these notices the impression that they are in possession of some sort of legal order.

Unfortunately, the services Infringex offers are basically useless. The company’s success (what there is of it) relies heavily on ignorance — both on the part of the sender and the receiver. The sender has to believe an Infringex document will be more effective than anything he or she could accomplish on their own. At the other end, those receiving these requests need to believe these documents carry far more legal weight than they actually do.

Marshall admits his services are greatly dependent on the wholly-voluntary cooperation of those receiving these requests. Despite this, he claims his documents are successful nearly 40% of the time. He sent me a selection of (redacted) letters from compliant entities as evidence of Infringex’s successes. Unfortunately, before sending these, he asked me to abandon my ethics and professionalism in exchange for releasing this info.

BTW Tim,

When we have some time next week, I could forward to you proof of website owners and administrators complying with our requests. But if I do that, I would expect you to write a favorable article on us ;))

This may have been a joke that badly missed its mark (note the winking emoticon) or it may have been a genuine request. (His response to my response indicates it was more of the latter.) I informed Marshall that he was free to withhold the documents if this was the only way I’d get to see them. He seemed to quickly realize he’d made an egregious error and immediately agreed to send the documents (embedded below) no matter how flattering or unflattering the resulting post ended up being.

There’s not much that can be gleaned from the documents provided, as Marshall obviously desires to protect the privacy of those involved. Fair enough. No business offering content takedown services should willingly part with sensitive client or recipient information. But in terms of establishing Infringex as a successful entity, it’s more hearsay than actual evidence.

While Infringex’s services may be of only marginal use, my emails and phone conversations with Marshall — combined with my own research — lead me to believe this is just a bad business model (aided and abetted by some questionable muddying of legal waters) rather than a low-level scam operation or a shady offshore entity selling unneeded services of dubious legal provenance while keeping itself out of harm’s way by incorporating in Bermuda, etc.

Marshall cites some reputation problems with his family’s business (not Infringex) — ones he spent “years” cleaning up — as the driving force behind his current endeavors. No further details are forthcoming, but Marshall portrays this reputational damage as intentional sabotage by competitors. Whatever the truth is, it helps explains why he would choose to pursue the career he does.

Marshall has since responded to Goldman’s Forbes post, offering a rebuttal to his criticism. The rebuttal is in need of a rebuttal, but I’d rather just point out something Infringex has changed in response to Goldman’s criticisms. The “press release” notes that it has “edited its site to better serve users,” but fails to specify exactly what has been edited. Ken White (Popehat) tracked down the change.

The word “ordered” in the following sentence on its defamation removal page has been replaced with “asked.”

They will be asked to DELETE and REMOVE the blog, post or review, immediately.

This is an improvement, but Infringex really should stop insinuating its services are on par with actual legal services provided by actual law officers, or that its documents have any legal basis whatsoever.

What I can say in defense of Infringex (that goes past the faint praise damnation of “NOT A SCAM!”) is that its owner seems sincere in his desire to help people, even if his site portrays his company’s services as more valuable than they actually are.

The other thing I can say in his defense is that these quasi-legal documents, being hawked for $140 minimum, are no worse than some of the bogus cease-and-desist orders we’ve covered here at Techdirt. Infringex is misguided and badly in need of some legal coaching on defamation and other undesirable content. The lawyers signing these C&Ds — and issuing them on law firm letterhead — have no excuse for being as clueless as some random internet dude with a half-baked reputation management service. Bogus takedown demands issued by these lawyers are usually more expensive while being no more legally-sound than Infringex’s documents. But they carry with them a legal heft that often prompts victims of this bullying behavior to capitulate immediately. These lawyers similarly rely on the ignorance of others for their success, but they do so with complete awareness of their disingenuous and harmful actions. They screw the people on both ends of these interactions. Their clients often find the criticism and content they want buried spreading uncontainably across the internet. Their targets often find themselves having to hire lawyers of their own or simply living unenjoyable lives marred by the omnipresent threat of always-impending legal action.

Infringex — for what it’s worth — can’t bully people into submission or sue anyone on behalf of its customers. But it can lead the uninformed to seek removal of content they have no legal right to “order” taken down. Because of this, the service is more likely to be abused by those who wish to bury criticism or past embarrassments. Because Infringex is clearly not a legal entity, it is under no obligation to advise against deploying abusive takedown requests. But as is pointed out above, the world is full of lawyers who apparently feel they’re similarly under no obligation to refuse to aid and abet in legally-groundless bullying tactics.

Infringex’s services are dubious. Its press releases and blog posts bear an unfortunate resemblance to outsourced content farming. Its grasp on the legal issues it’s tangling with are tenuous at best. Its attempt to portray itself as both a legitimate alternative to legal action as well as a decidedly-not legal entity sends mixed messages — perhaps willingly. But it is not evil.

Unfortunately, because of its shortcomings, it will tend to attract the sort of people who know they have no legal basis for their takedown requests, but hope that an official-looking document might scare a few people into compliance. That’s a problem and — as its services are contstructed and sold — one it will never be able to fix in its current state.

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