In the unfortunate event that your privacy has been breached and personal images have been stolen, there are several steps that can be taken to have this content removed from the internet. It is important that the following processes are initiated quickly. Once content is on the internet, it can spread quickly and make this process much more difficult and time consuming.

Here is a brief example to show how quickly an image can spread, increasing the difficulty in removing it completely from the internet. Once the image is uploaded to a website it begins to be picked up by the automated programs of search engines called spiders or crawlers. The image then becomes embedded in the search results for the keywords associated with the image. At that point, other websites may begin uploading the image. Though illegally obtained and uploaded, the image is in the public domain and can spread quickly to an infinite number of websites.

Time is of the essence to avoid this problem. The following are the steps that need to be taken to prevent the rapid spread of these images.

1. Contact the website for which the content is displayed. The first step is contacting the website and informing them that they are displaying content in violation of an individual’s rights and the law. This notice will likely need to be accompanied by an affidavit, or some other statement under penalty of perjury.

a. In the event the website does not take action, contact the web host. Some websites will ignore the notice and not take action. If this is the case, the web host can be notified to remove the infringing content. The web host is a third-party that provides internet connectivity or hosts the content of a website. Each web host has contractual terms and conditions, nearly all of which will contain a provision prohibiting the display of unauthorized content. A website owner agrees to these terms upon registration with the web host. To prevent the possibility of vicarious liability, the web host must remove the infringing content.

b. In the event the content is on social media, file the appropriate takedown form. There are a variety of forms or removal methods used by the various social media websites.  Some require the injured individual to file the complaint, while others allow a complaint to be filed by an authorized representative. Filing the wrong complaint will lead to further delays in removal of the content.

2. Once the content is removed from the website or the web host has taken down the website, contact search engines to remove content from search results. Once the content is removed from the website, it is important to quickly contact the various search engines and notify them that the content or web page has been removed. Search engines, such as Google, do not continuously filter their search results. Therefore, an image or other content that has been removed from a website may continue to result in searches several weeks thereafter.  If the content has been removed from the website but continues to display in search results on a search engine, the search engine must be notified of this and, upon notice, the search engine will take action to remove the content from the search results, typically within 24 hours.

3. Conduct periodic searches in the months thereafter. While the content may be removed from the initial website and no results are found in searches on search engines, the content could still be displayed on a website on the internet. The previously mentioned search engine spiders or crawlers search websites periodically.  It is imperative to continuously conduct searches to determine whether the search engines have picked up any new content that was not previously found.

This law update was authored by Taft law clerk Neil Peluchette, with contributions from Taft attorney Bill Wagner.