The story in question was written by Sam Biddle and published on April 21, 2015. The article quoted heavily from Lynton’s emails, which became public thanks to a massive intrusion that the Obama administration attributed to the North Koreans in advance of the release of the Seth Rogen film The Interview. When the hack happened three years ago, Sony begged journalists to exercise care with leaked information and even threatened the media with legal action for exposing secrets, though the studio never did go to court to challenge what news outlets published.
Had that happened, it would have surely invited a huge First Amendment battle. Nevertheless, after the Gawker Media Group declared bankruptcy and sold most of its assets to Univision’s Fusion Media Group for $135 million last August — with the notable exception of the Gawker.com trademark and archives — Lynton saw an opportunity. In order to clean up its legal liabilities in advance of the sale, Gawker reached several settlements in which it agreed to take down a few of its other controversial stories, including the one about Hogan’s sex tape that brought on its demise. These removals happened thanks to claims officially lodged in court against the debtor. It’s unclear how Lynton effectuated a removal. Nothing publicly was filed, although it’s possible there were claims filed under seal.
According to Gawker bankruptcy records, Celli did file proof of claims on behalf of two anonymous individuals under seal in September. (A lawyer for Gawker’s administrator didn’t respond to a request for comment.) Judging by what’s been captured at Archive.org, the removal seems to have occurred in April. Even though the story was based on communications between Lynton, now chairman at Snap, Inc. (which built its brand off of the appeal of messages that won’t remain on the internet forever), and others, Lynton’s family asserted the story carried the untrue assertion that he unduly influenced an elite academic institution.
“Cleaning the internet of negative content by highly influential executives is a huge business,” says Bryan Freedman, a Hollywood attorney who represents talent agencies and many stars. “I spend a great portion of every day for high-level clients analyzing the approach to be taken and then creating a plan and executing it usually on various platforms. There are other tricks that are not commonly known but incredibly effective.”
As to Volokh’s questions, I see value to news archives and believe removing articles sets a dangerous precedent, but I can at least understand in certain situations the attempts to make information harder to find. Is manipulating search engines really so troubling?
In Europe, authorities have given private citizens a “right to be forgotten,” or more precisely, the ability to demand search engines like Google eradicate information that is no longer newsworthy. Here in America, there isn’t this right. Journalists don’t even have an onus to update — and unfortunately, many don’t.
As for the Lynton situation, I asked Volokh about it.
“Normally, I think that asking Gawker to take down material that’s allegedly defamatory and privacy-invading would be the right approach,” he responded. “The problem here is that it sounds like Lynton approached the Gawker administrator, which does raise the problem of material being squelched without the exercise of real editorial judgment. Yet I take it we wouldn’t want a rule that, once a media site goes bankrupt, people who have legit defamation/privacy claims about stories on the site would have no one to turn to. So maybe this comes down to the merits of his objection.”
But as Volokh said, it’s important to understand the merits of Lynton’s objection. And it could also be argued that writing about any defamation claim constitutes some echo of information damaging to someone’s reputation. Ultimately, I decided that moves made by public figures to take down information — including by way of robots.txt files — are, well, newsworthy regardless of the origins and that it was important enough to provide at least some detail.