Google & Facebook Forced to Remove Counterfeit Sites, But Does It Help Consumers?

Counterfeit goods are the scourge of many an online shopper. Short of waiting in line at the DMV, few things are more frustrating than believing you’ve stumbled upon that rare discontinued handbag or an amazing bargain on a set of Titleist irons, only to discover you’ve been duped by a counterfeiter who has made off with your money and left you holding the [crummy] bag. Sites selling counterfeits easily number in the hundreds of thousands, and new ones crop up every day.

Enter the well-intentioned and verbosely-named U.S. Government task force: National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (IPR Center). The IPR Center jointly runs something called, “Operation In Our Sites“, which according to its releases, “…specifically targets websites and their operators that distribute counterfeit and pirated items over the Internet, including counterfeit pharmaceuticals and pirated movies, television shows, music, software, electronics and other merchandise, as well as products that threaten public health and safety.”  As a note to consumers, and perhaps a warning to other would-be counterfeiters, the seized sites now redirect to an unfriendly looking site with information about the federal action.

U.S. District Court decisions  have also attempted to address the online counterfeiting problem. An aggressive player has been luxury fashion house Chanel. Chanel has taken its battle against counterfeiters to the courts and has been trying to get the websites of counterfeiters shut down. In a recent U.S. District Court lawsuit, the state of Nevada issued a court order in favor of Chanel, and the domains in question have been shut down. The Nevada court ruling also ordered social media websites and Internet search engines (e.g., Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, and Bing) to “de-index and/or remove [the domain names] and remove the 200+  sites from search results.” The court orders have generated a lot of thought-provoking buzz regarding the freedom of the internet. Regardless of the good intentions behind the ruling and government actions, for some, having their internet search results being partially controlled by the government is both Orwellian and unsettling.

While Sitejabber strongly supports protecting consumers from counterfeiters, we question whether our legal system will really be able to help. After all, the parties doing the counterfeiting are often left intact, since they are frequently based in other countries where U.S. intellectual property laws are difficult or impossible to enforce. Counterfeiters who lose a domain can often simply register a new one (sometimes this is done by the thousands) to hawk their fake goods. And inevitably, these new sites will make their way back into Google search results and consumers in the U.S. and elsewhere will again be harmed.  Our legal system and courts should not be faulted for trying to stop counterfeiters, but in the near-term it is a Sisyphean task to put them out of business one website at a time. Myriad phony Chanel sites still exist. For the foreseeable future, as a matter of protection, consumers need to arm themselves with better information, as it appears to be the only real protection. Website reviews are not the worst place to start.