It may have seemed like a good idea at the time – treating a judge's takedown order as a Photoshop template that could be modified as needed to demand that Google remove any unwanted information.
But on Friday, Michael Arnstein, 40, of Kailua, Hawaii, pled guilty to conspiring to forge a US federal judge's signature to erase unflattering content about his business, The Natural Sapphire Company, based in Manhattan, New York.
Arnstein is presently listed as president of the company.
"By forging court orders and the signature of a US District Judge, Arnstein was able to effectively erase websites critical of Arnstein's business from its search results," said acting Manhattan US Attorney Joon H Kim in a statement. "Now Arnstein awaits sentencing in the same court he impersonated."
According to New York court documents [PDF], Arnstein saw forgery as a way to save on legal fees.
In 2011, Arnstein successfully sued Prashant Telang, a web designer, and his company TransPacific Software, for cybersquatting and defamation [PDF], after their business relationship turned acrimonious.
He settled with Telang and won a default judgement against the web designer's company, which resulted in an order from Judge Alison J Nathan in 2012 to take down 54 URLs.
Evidently, that wasn't enough. With the help of an unidentified third party, according to court documents, Arnstein used a digitally altered version of the court order to demand that Google remove additional URLs from its index.
In an email to an unidentified recipient in 2014, presented in a court filing, Arnstein observed that Google doesn't do much to verify the authenticity of takedown demands.
"I spent 100K on lawyers to get a court order injunction to have things removed from Google and Youtube, only to photoshop the documents for future use when new things 'popped up' and google legal never double checked my docs for validity ... I could have saved 100K and 2 years of waiting/damage if I just used photoshop and a few hours of creative editing – Lawyers are often worse than the criminals."
In another email that year, he recounted a different figure for his expenses:
"I spent $30,000 fuckin thousand dollars and nearly 2 fuckin years to do what legit could have been done for about 6 hours of searching and photoshop by a guy for $200, all in ONE DAY...."
Between February 2014 and February 2017, according to the Justice Department, Arnstein was involved in forging more than 10 court orders. The fake orders were sent to Google seeking the removal of search links to websites that contained supposedly defamatory information about his business.
Many of the orders were unrelated to the links cited in his successful defamation lawsuit. And some but not all of them succeed in getting Google to de-list information.
In a statement emailed to The Register, Google said it deals regularly with efforts to subvert its takedown process. "We have measures in place to safeguard the integrity of our search results against bad actors seeking to game the system with fraudulent court orders," said spokesperson Patrick Lenihan.
"We work with law enforcement to combat fraud and abuse of the judicial system and have assisted law enforcement in their ongoing efforts on this issue."
Google did not address a question about whether Arnstein's image burnishing campaign had prompted any change in its procedures.
A spokesperson at The Natural Sapphire Company could not be reached to confirm the status of Arnstein at the company. When The Register contacted a sales person by phone and asked whether there was anyone at the company who could answer such questions, the response was, "No, I don't think so."
Arnstein is scheduled to be sentenced in January. He faces up to five years in prison.
In a statement, FBI Assistant Director in Charge William F Sweeney, Jr savored the irony that Arnstein's ill-fated SEO operation had backfired.
"Arnstein's attempts to remove any trace of unfavorable information about his business posted online sent him down a slippery slope," Sweeney said. "Not only did he commit a federal crime by forging a judge's signature in furtherance of his scheme, but he now finds himself back on the internet. This time, however, it's a story no search engine can erase." ®