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Search Engine Placement Lawsuit May Chill Free Speech

By Gene J. Koprowski
Sep 28, 2005 5:00 AM PT

A lawsuit filed against Web sites that allege search engine results on Google.com were rigged by a placement firm is being watched throughout the Internet industry, as possibly having an impact on the free speech rights of bloggers, experts tell the E-Commerce Times.

Search Engine Placement Lawsuit May Chill Free Speech

The Las Vegas-based search engine placement company Traffic-Power.com has filed suit against SEOBook.com and TrafficPowerSucks.com, which each have a lot of adverse commentary about the firm posted on their sites. Both sites are being sued for comments made by third parties -- who are not in the employment of the sites' producers.

Slapp Suit?

Experts think the lawsuit may be dismissed as a suit designed to silence comment on matters of public concern, known by the acronym SLAPP, for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.

"Plaintiffs think they can bully Web sites and blogs into doing what they want," commented Eric Goldman, an attorney, and a faculty member at the Marquette University School of Law, located in Milwaukee, Wis.

Another lawyer, Kurt Opsah, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation based in Washington, D.C., said often lawsuits are filed which have no merit, but which are designed to silence foes, and compel them to spend money to defend themselves in court.

Bloggers, who are generally small businesses, or part-time writers, may not have the means to defend themselves from well-financed legal assaults, however, experts said.

The story of the lawsuits started a year ago. Blogger Aaron Wall, whose blog, SEOBook.com, is a popular destination for those in the search-engine optimization industry. Wall last year wrote of an error message on Traffic-Power.com's Web site, which said, "You have reached this page in error." Wall commented that "being on the Traffic-Power client list is an error."

This post inspired an array of even more negative posts about Traffic-Power.com from readers. "I recently got scammed by Traffic-Power," wrote one. Other postings suggested that Traffic-Power.com sent "reports from search engines nobody uses."

Soon thereafter, Wall received a cease-and-desist letter from a Las Vegas attorney, Max Spilka, who accused the blogger of publishing "proprietary and confidential information related to Traffic-Power.com's business that was pirated from Traffic-Power and which Wall obtained without permission."

The attorney also demanded that Wall provide a list of the sources -- for his postings -- and that he redact all information related to Traffic-Power.com from his Web site. If he did not comply, the lawyer wrote, the company would seek damages that could exceed US$1 million.

On Aug. 11, the firm filed suit in a Nevada court, alleging defamation and theft of trade secrets against the blogger.

High-Stakes Litigation

The stakes are high for the lawsuit. Traffic-Power.com is seeking to restore its reputation, and hopefully, one day, be allowed to work with Google.com again. Being knocked off the search engine would be a blow to any Internet marketing firm, as 45 percent of all searches in the United States are done with Google, according to Nielsen NetRatings Search Engine Ratings.

A distant second in popularity is Yahoo.com with 23 percent of all searches, and MSN is third with about 13 percent.

Part of the controversy over Traffic-Power stems from allegations of trying to optimize search engine rankings. Some clients complained about dropping in the rankings, but Traffic-Power says ranking drops for most clients were due to search engines changing their indexing methods, not something the firm did.


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