They reveal the content of documents on how the former Dominican minister Miguel Octavio Vargas, the Argentine businessman José Gordo Valero and the Venezuelan Majed Khalil Majzoub have tried to erase their past on the Internet.
In February 2021, Qurium, an organization that provides secure web hosting services for human rights organizations and independent media outlets, received a garbled message from someone whose email signature indicated they were in the legal department of the European Commission.
According to a report by Peter Guest in for Rest of World , a new global nonprofit publication covering the impact of technology beyond the Western bubble, writing in dense legalese, the representative, “Raúl Soto,” demanded that Qurium will take action on articles from a Kenya-based investigative journalism website it hosts, The Elephant . The articles in question included an investigation into alleged corruption, but Soto’s email did not deal with the allegations. Rather, he claimed that the piece had breached the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which governs the collection and storage of personal data in Europe.
Qurium staff were suspicious. A brief investigation revealed that the street address at Soto’s firm was not, in fact, that of the European Commission; rather, it was rented office space in Brussels. Using a publicly available database , they found that complaints were filed with search engines around the same time, claiming that The Elephant article was plagiarized and requesting that the piece be removed and de-indexed from searches, meaning that It will not appear on the first pages of search engine results.
Qurium traced the domain used in Soto’s email to a reputation management company called Eliminalia, registered in 2013 by a Spanish businessman named Diego “Dídac” Sánchez and based in Barcelona and kyiv. Eliminalia specializes in removing information from the internet; its motto is “We erase your past, we help you build your future” and it promises “100% confidentiality”.
Now, documents seen by Rest of World shed light on the reputation management industry, revealing how Eliminalia and similar companies can use bogus copyright claims and bogus legal notices to remove and hide articles linking customers to accusations of tax evasion, corruption and drug trafficking.
The metadata, file names, and the inclusion of internal company information, including contact details and references to company policies, suggest that the documents originated within Eliminalia. Along with names called clients, the documents include URLs that were to be removed or de-indexed on their behalf. Rest of World spoke to several individuals and media organizations that ran websites listed in the documents and confirmed that they had been approached by individuals linked to or directly employed by Eliminalia.
Among the thousands of names listed as clients in the documents are the former foreign minister of the Dominican Republic, an individual charged in Argentina for his role in a cryptocurrency pyramid scheme, and people accused of corruption around the world, apparently seeking to erase information about themselves. from Internet. There are 17,000 URLs that appear to have been targeted on behalf of clients between 2015 and 2019. In at least one case, it appears that Eliminalia may have been hired by a third-party reputation management firm on behalf of a client. It is not clear if the list represents all of the company’s clients, but it includes individuals and companies from Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Magalis Camellón, head of Eliminalia’s legal department, said in an email that the company “had no contractual relationship” with any of the people named in this story, and that “unfortunately, competitors perform wrong actions (DMCA) on behalf of Eliminalia and therefore try to tarnish the reputation of our company”. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA, is US legislation designed to prevent online copyright theft that can be used to issue takedown requests. Camellón declined to provide further details.
Some of the people appearing in the documents are individuals apparently seeking to have explicit videos removed from pornographic websites. But the most prolific users of the service appear to be businessmen and politicians looking for critical articles.
A 2021 Eliminalia client agreement, seen by the Rest of World , shows the company charged 2,500 euros ($2,800) for removal or deindexation of each link. In a 2016 interview, Sánchez said his firm charges some high-profile clients and businesses a premium fee of around $20,000-$30,000. The documents apparently show some customers pointing to hundreds of articles and pages.
Among the names listed in the documents is “Miguel Octavio Vargas Maldonado,” who appears to be the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Dominican Republic. His name appears alongside more than 500 links to news articles, blogs, social media posts and YouTube videos apparently destined for removal or deindexation. Many are articles that address questions about his political fundraising practices. They include allegations that Vargas had received donations from an individual who would later be convicted of drug trafficking. Some of the directed links remain active , while others now return 404 or » errors.file not Found”. Maldonado could not be reached for comment. Emails to his political party have been recovered and his website is currently down. He has previously denied any wrongdoing while in office.
The documents also include an individual referred to as “José Antonio Gordo Valero,” who apparently targeted several articles for removal or deindexation that refer to the collapse of OneCoin, a Bulgaria-based company later revealed to be an illicit investment scheme. OneCoin lured investors by claiming to offer them access to a high-yield cryptocurrency and reportedly raised $4 billion before being exposed as a fraud. The company’s founder, Ruja Ignatova, disappeared around 2017, but she was charged in the absence of money laundering, wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit securities fraud in the US.
A businessman named José Gordo joined OneCoin in 2015 and has been named in an indictment for the OneCoin scam in Argentina. Articles appearing next to Gordo’s name in documents reviewed by Rest of World include references to his role in the company. Gordo did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Other names in the documents include “Diego Adolfo Marynberg,” who appears to be the same Marynberg connected with funding right-wing causes, including settlement efforts in Israel. The reports also alleged that his company received preferential treatment in the acquisition of Argentine bonds worth millions of dollars. More than 70 URLs appear next to Marynberg’s name in the documents, including pages from Israeli newspapers The Times of Israel and Haaretz , as well as Clarín . , one of the most important news sites in Argentina. Marynberg did not respond to a request for comment and a message sent to one of her Cayman Islands-based funds went unanswered.
The documents also include many links related to stories about Venezuela. Among the names in the documents was “Majed Khalid Majzoub”. Based on analysis of the stories that were attacked, this appears to be a misspelling by Majed Khalil Majzoub, an influential businessman with close ties to various governments , including the administration of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Majzoub’s name appears alongside more than 180 URLs, mostly from independent media. Of the two URLs that pointed to articles from Germany’s Der Spiegel , one now returns an error message; the other, which appears to refer to relations between Venezuela and Colombia, leads to an unrelated story about Brexit. Majzoub could not be reached for comment. Der Spiegel did not respond to a request for comment.
One outlet repeatedly targeted according to the documents is Infodio.com, a site run by London-based Venezuelan investigative journalist Alek Boyd. Boyd told Rest of World that he has on several occasions been the target of false claims under the DMCA and received messages from public relations and public relations companies threatening him with legal action. He told Rest of World that he has been contacted on at least two occasions by people who use Eliminalia email addresses and identify themselves as company employees, who have tried to get him to remove content.
Eliminalia’s presence in Venezuela has raised concerns among freedom of expression organizations. Freedom House ‘s 2017 Freedom on the Net report for the country warned that Eliminalia had been implicated in trying to “clean up the reputation” of local politicians and businessmen, citing a report by Runrun.es’ Lisseth Boon .
Boyd said he reached out to social media companies, law enforcement agencies and regulators to try to alert them to the practice, to no avail. He admitted to a degree of fatalism about the use of reputation management services by powerful people.
“If someone can, with a little money, change their reality and the reality that the world can access, what’s the fucking point?” he said.
Several of the clients listed in the documents appear to have used the service to try to limit the damage to their reputations caused by the publication of the so-called Panama Papers , which exposed the widespread use of offshore financial centers by politicians and public figures. of all the world. the world.
The documents show that several people listed as clients may have been referred to Eliminalia, knowingly or not, by another reputation management agency, ReputationUp, which is registered in Spain and has operations in Latin America. ReputationUp CEO Andrea Baggio told Rest of World that his company had a “collaboration” with Eliminalia that it had “abruptly discontinued.”
“We decided to block any type of relationship as soon as we realized that their way of operating was not consistent with our ideas and with our code of ethics,” Baggio said. He declined to provide a date for the termination of the agreement.
The documents contain a particularly large list of names from Mexico: More than 2,000 of the listed links were apparently directed by clients based in the country. That includes businessmen and people with political connections who want articles removed from mainstream media outlets, such as La Jornada and Proceso .
According to the Mexican outlet Animal Político , Eliminalia started operations in Mexico in 2015. The following year, Sánchez boasted in an interview that he already had 400 clients.
The closure of an investigation by Mexican outlet Página 66 illustrates how reputation management firms like Eliminalia may be behind a pattern of journalistic investigations in the country that were suddenly deleted without explanation.
In January 2018, Página 66 published a story about deals between a local government agency and a subsidiary of Grupo Altavista, a conglomerate with interests in infrastructure, cybersecurity, and surveillance technology. Months later, Página 66 received a notification from its hosting provider informing them that, as a result of the story, the outlet had been denounced for intellectual property violation. More notices followed, along with legal-looking emails, threatening messages on social media, and more attempts, using DMCA reporting, to remove the content. The story is currently inactive . Page 66 did not respond to a request for comment.
The URL of the original Page 66 story is in the documents reviewed by Rest of World , as is a link to a statement from transparency advocacy group Article 19 on the case, which remains online at the time of publication. write this article. The name associated with the removal request appears as Humberto Herrera Rincón Gallardo. Herrera is a personal branding expert whose website shows that he has been widely quoted in the Mexican business press on the subject of reputation management. Hererra is also listed as having requested the removal of several articles related to the Altavista Group, among other stories. His name also appears on a copyright complaint made to Page 66 .
Herrera and Altavista did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Priscilla Ruiz, the digital rights legal coordinator for Article 19 in Mexico, laughed when told the organization’s page appeared in the documents, but seemed resigned. “This is how things happen here,” she said.
Ruiz said the seemingly widespread use of services like Eliminalia in Mexico is worrisome. Corruption and organized crime have dominated politics in the country for decades. Using this technique, powerful people can secretly pay to try to hide their past scandals and embellish their reputations, making it harder for the electorate to punish corruption and bad behavior. “The only source [of information] we have is what the journalists are doing,” he said. “Information like [ Page 66 ] published is important for us to see how companies get involved in political decisions.”
Eliminalia was founded in Spain by Sánchez and is now part of Maidan Holding, an umbrella group based in kyiv and Barcelona for Sánchez’s business interests.
On the Maidan website, Sánchez is described as a self-made man who emerged from a difficult early life as a ward of the state in Barcelona, overcoming his lack of formal education, to build his first company at age 20. . “In a short time and at the age of 25, “Dídac” Sánchez became a paradigm among young entrepreneurs,” the site reads. His private Instagram account has more than 40,000 followers.
The Maidan site is dotted with inspiring sayings, including “Responsibility is not given, it is taken” and “Little things feed big things.” Sánchez also runs his own foundation, which works on poverty and social exclusion in Spain.
Maidan’s other businesses include a reproductive medical clinic that offers surrogacy for hire, plans for a cosmetic surgery clinic, a payment business, and various public relations and reputation management companies, including Eliminalia.
The reputation management industry has expanded dramatically over the past decade, taking advantage of “right to be forgotten” laws, such as GDPR, which give users some control over their data and the information posted about it online, and a huge demand to get rid of the Internet. of past indiscretions. The industry has prospered, in part, thanks to the efficiency, ease, and low cost of filing complaints through the DMCA. Hosting providers often lack the ability or interest to investigate every complaint and, under the law, can be held liable for contributing to copyright infringement, if later proven, which can be very costly. . Often they simply comply with these requests.
“The almost magical piece is that once they do that, [the host] is done. They are clean, under no circumstances can they be held responsible,” Adam Holland, manager of the Lumen database, a project at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University that tracks DMCA requests , told Rest of World . . “All the incentives are to tear him down. Because why would you back down? You could incur legal liability, whether right or wrong.” While some larger search engines and hosting companies occasionally reject applications, “the vast, vast majority are still accepted almost instantly,” Holland said.
While there are legitimate uses for the DMCA complaint process and third-party reputation management services, they can also be used to hide evidence of past malpractice.
Previous Qurium research appears to demonstrate how Eliminalia attempts to substantiate DMCA complaints . To support claims of plagiarism against The Elephant , Qurium found that the article in question was copied and pasted to several different websites, all with domains that made them sound like African news outlets. Duplicate articles were given timestamps that made them appear as if they were published before the original. Those websites were hosted on the servers of a company called World Intelligence Limited, based in Manchester, UK Companies House, the UK company register, lists Sanchez as the sole director of World Intelligence Limited.
John Githongo, a veteran anti-corruption campaigner and editor of The Elephant , told Rest of World that the cost in time and money of resisting takedown requests can be substantial for small organizations like his, which he believes is the point. “Success for them is keeping you busy and spending money you don’t have,” he said. Githongo said that reputation management companies and the practices they use give the impression that they are “basically extortion artists, trying to use Western laws to get you to stop posting.”
Tord Lundström, Qurium’s technical director of digital forensics, said that since its investigation of The Elephant case , Qurium has seen attempts to create fake websites to claim copyrights that are increasingly sophisticated and difficult to trace. He has identified more than 200 new domains that he believes have been created by companies linked to Eliminalia, in order to support DMCA claims or manipulate search results. Eliminalia did not respond to requests for comment about the new network of websites, nor about allegations of misuse of the DMCA process.
Lundström said the reputation management industry urgently needs regulation. The DMCA and GDPR were not designed to be used in this way, but so far, US and European lawmakers and courts have not taken significant steps to address the industry.
“Spoofing, Fake DMCA, Content Removal – Right to be Forgotten is misused. … It has to be a court that says that the right to be forgotten is not meant to clean up the image of [corrupt] people,” he said. Right now, he told her, the ability to erase your past from the Internet may seem like it’s reserved for a wealthy few. “It depends on how much money you have. If you have enough money, you have the right to be forgotten.”