Google is updating its Search product to make it easier for victims of online harassment to prevent exploitative websites from appearing in search results for their names.
The changes are meant to limit the reach of “low quality sites” that “employ exploitative removals practices,” Google said on Thursday, such as requiring people to pay to have their personal information taken down. Setting up those sites is trivial enough that it’s easy to orchestrate harassment campaigns against people even if their data is removed from one site—especially if the new websites appear at the top of Google’s search results.
Enter these changes. “To help people who are dealing with extraordinary cases of repeated harassment,” Google said, “we’re implementing an improvement to our approach to further protect known victims. Now, once someone has requested a removal from one site with predatory practices, we will automatically apply ranking protections to help prevent content from other similar low quality sites appearing in search results for people’s names.”
The company cited a January report from The New York Times, which detailed a harassment campaign against a software engineer and his entire family as part of the inspiration for these changes. The report showed that a single person was able to make accusations of pedophilia, thievery, and other crimes appear prominently in Google’s search results. (Not that it was the only big platform involved—the lies were also spread on Pinterest and a WordPress blog.)
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Google said that its efforts to defend victims of harassment won’t stop with the changes announced Thursday, and that it’s “looking to expand these protections further, as part of our ongoing work in this space.” It didn’t offer additional information about when the changes would take effect, how it defines “low quality sites,” or if these new protections would be retroactively applied to victims of harassment who have already requested a site’s removal.