Tragic Story Shows Limits of Startups Like ReputationDefender

Earlier this month, I wrote a short post about the startup ReputationDefender, whose mission it is to obliterate damaging online information about its clients, who pay it on a month-to-month or yearly basis. (I reported that the company, which had raised a $2.6 million Series A last fall, has expanded that offering and is raising $5.3 million instead.)

The unfortunately reality, however, is that the Redwood City, Calif.-based startup and its sundry competitive peers are powerless to do much more than contact offending Internet sites and ask that they play ball.

The point gets underscored in a current Newsweek piece about the Catsouras family of Orange County. The Catsourases lost one of their four beautiful daughters to a gruesome car accident in 2006. The daughter, who’d become mentally unstable and taken cocaine the night before the accident, was nearly decapitated when she steered her father’s Porsche, stolen from the garage, into a concrete toll booth.

The loss was the realization of her parents’ worst nightmare — until grisly photos of her crash began to circulate online, thanks to two unthinking CHP police officers who thought they were doing their friends and family a service by sending them the pictures to scare them straight. Soon, naturally, the photos were everywhere — including in the inbox of the heartbroken father.

The officers were suspended and one later quit, but to prevent the photos from spreading, the family hired a law firm and ReputationDefender, both of which quickly found themselves hamstrung. Though together they “began tracking the Web sites displaying the photos, issuing cease-and-desist letters, and using advanced coding to make the photos harder to find in a Google search,” reports Newsweek, the tactics were pretty much a bust, “and no amount of programming magic could keep them from spreading to new sites.”

“Long story short, it became a virtually unwinnable battle,” said ReputationDefender founder Michael Fertik to the magazine.

How unwinnable? When the family then tried to sue the CHP for negligence, the superior court judge who heard the case called it an “unfortunate situation.” He then added, “this is America, and there’s a freedom of information.”

That’s not just disheartening for Catsourases, who have appealed the court’s decision, but it’s pretty bad news for the future of ReputationDefender and similar startups. They may be able to promote their customers’ good news, mitigating the damaging links that they’re paid to obscure. Beyond that, it would seem that their customers are on their own.