Google under fire after leaked personal details of Hampstead residents remain on web

Google has started to take down the offending videos. Photo: Chris Ison/PA Wire.

Google has started to take down the offending videos. Photo: Chris Ison/PA Wire. - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images

The inability of the courts to protect people from online abuse has become a “real concern”, solicitors have warned, as dozens of shocked Hampstead residents continue to find their personal details published alongside unfounded allegations of criminal wrongdoing.

Full names, addresses and telephone numbers of individuals have been posted on a number of internet blogs and alternative news sites in recent weeks, with videos detailing the allegations having been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people.

The claims, which the mainstream media is barred by court order from reporting on, are said to have been investigated by police and found to be baseless.

Yet despite a High Court injunction ordering Google, Facebook and web blog hosts to remove the videos, links and videos continue to appear.

Some who have had their details put online have already received abusive phone calls from internet users.

With their addresses also published, the innocent victims are fearful that physical attacks could follow.

One individual affected said: “That someone can just make such unfounded and far-fetched allegations about us all, and publish our addresses and numbers freely on the internet, is just horrific.

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“I’m terrified people will believe what they read, come round to our house and attack us. I don’t know where to turn to get the links taken down. The police don’t seem to be able to do anything.”

The affair has reignited the debate over whether courts have been left powerless to control information in the “Wild West” that can be the internet.

Robin Shaw, a media law specialist at Gordon Dadds Solicitors who represents Private Eye magazine in cases of libel, told the Ham&High: “The internet is very difficult to control in this area. Almost impossible, in fact.

“Individuals affected could go to the police to have proceedings brought against the publisher. Or an injunction could be sought to ensure their name is prohibited from being published anywhere in this context.

“But this is likely to be a lengthy and costly process [and] you can’t guarantee others wouldn’t just reproduce the content anonymously.

“The courts are trying to catch up with this kind of problem, but there’s a long way to go. You’re not completely powerless but you’re not particularly well protected against those determined to repeat the allegations either.”

Sir Keir Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions (DPP), said: “The internet isn’t a law-free zone and it can be policed.

“There have already been examples of criminal proceedings in this area and the police have ways of identifying who has put up information.

“But it is much more difficult to police than other forms of media.

“It must be terrible for those affected and we do need to have much stronger working arrangements with online service providers so that this kind of stuff can be taken down quicker. We haven’t got to that place yet.”

Police said they were “fully investigating the source of the blogs and the councils involved are seeking legal recourse to have them removed from the internet”.

On Thursday, Google confirmed to the Ham&High it had begun removing the offending videos.

It said anyone affected could request removals from search results and make defamation claims (see below).

From Google UK:

1. An individual or a legal guardian can request for videos to be removed under our privacy guidelines here. They can also flag directly from the video itself.

2. When a video is brought to our attention as a possible violation of our Guidelines, we act quickly to review it and remove the video if we conclude that it violates our Guidelines.

3. Individuals can also request removals from search here and make defamation claims here.