A US online reputation management company has “targeted” three New Zealand citizens they suspected may be the political figure charged with child sexual assault in an Auckland court - one of whom they wrongly guessed was outspoken businessman Leo Molloy.
Net Reputation wrongly approached Molloy - who ran for Auckland mayor last year - soliciting business and “reputational management” for when name suppression in the case potentially lapses in the future.
One of the Florida-based company’s executives told the Herald “on a daily basis, we prospect for individuals and companies” and said they specialise in manipulating search engine results to “suppress information” and keep a “positive online presence”.
The ongoing case in the Waitākere District Court that prompted the Net Reputation approach involves a former political figure who has pleaded not guilty to multiple charges of historical child sex assault.
The identity of the former prominent political figure, who was not a Member of Parliament, remains under an interim suppression order pending a full hearing next month.
The cold-approach email on April 5 from Net Reputation executive Ryan Sherman Jnr to Molloy was careful not to breach suppression in the case.
“We have been closely monitoring a current alleged sexual assault court case in Waitākere, and there are strong indications that a prominent political figure with the same style as yours is involved, though their identity remains unmentioned. We believe you may be the individual in question, and if that is the case, we would like to offer our assistance in managing your online reputation once your name is released.”
But the prominent Auckland hospitality figure did not appreciate the approach from Net Reputation and made it known in no uncertain terms in his email reply.
“I should sue you, you’re a f***wit. Anyone involved in politics knows who it is and it sure as hell isn’t me. Your stupid overture merely demonstrates what a naive amateur you are and how unprofessional your company is.”
The 67-year-old says he has already been subject to abuse online from members of the public accusing him of being the person charged, and referred to the August 2021 case when Molloy lost an appeal to quash his conviction for breaching a court suppression order when he named British backpacker Grace Millane’s murderer online.
“There’s no basis in fact to their suggestion that it’s me and it seems unfair when ... we all know that I’ve got myself a conviction for doing what I thought was the right thing, which also involves - surprise, surprise - suppression orders or abuse thereof.”
The case in the Waitākere Court, which has nothing to do with Molloy, involves an individual who has been charged with multiple counts of indecent assault against two teenage boys in West Auckland and Waikato between 1995 and 1999.
The man charged appeared in the Waitākere District Court on March 28, where he was photographed but had his face blurred in published photos.
“There’s been people up on Twitter saying ‘it’s Molloy’, showing a picture of me wearing a shirt that was vaguely similar one day,” Molloy told the Herald on Sunday.
“I’ve had private messages from people through social [media] saying ‘we know it’s you’.”
Net Reputation executive Sherman Jnr apologised to Molloy about his unhappiness with the approach.
Sherman Jnr said his company’s strategy in trying to preserve the online reputation of a person charged or convicted of sexual assault would not be attempting to get online media articles taken down post-conviction.
“Removal would not be the approach if Mr Molloy were the suspect in this case,” Sherman Jnr said.
“We would manipulate the search engine using a branding campaign with high-end digital assets to suppress the information. That being said, we like to be proactive in situations like this. Of course, it was a stretch, but there were some clues on why I had my suspicions about Mr Molloy. If you look at the blurred-out pictures, his shoulders match the individual, and his name is also spoken about in multiple blog threads regarding this case.
“Apologies that my suspicions were wrong this time around. We typically contact people who are actually in trouble versus playing guessing games as we did here.”
Sherman Jnr said they had approached three individuals in relation to the Waitākere District Court sex assault case and all existing Net Reputation clients are under non-disclosure agreements.
“I am no professional investigator, so I will do these individuals justice and leave them unnamed as I am in discussion with them currently to help with their reputation online,” Sherman Jnr said.
“We target individuals and companies across the world. Not just New Zealand.”
Auckland media lawyer Robert Stewart said he was not familiar with such approaches from online reputation management companies in the past.
“The fact that this company exists and is making these approaches doesn’t surprise me in this day and age,” Stewart said.
“But how effective can they be given that, you know, online content is effectively ubiquitous now, and the Google search engines are pretty efficient at indexing everything? It’s pretty hard to completely remove content.”
Stewart also said in his opinion he would be “very surprised” if Net Reputation breached any New Zealand laws, unless the company had communicated to a third party its suspicion that a certain person may be facing the charges in question.
“I’d be asking myself, how efficiently or how realistic is it that they can actually do what they claim to do? If they can’t, then there’s issues under the Fair Trading Act for them. But if they’re not based here, how are you going to enforce that?”
Stewart said New Zealand is legally different to Europe - for example, they have a ’right to be forgotten’, which allows individuals to ask organisations to wipe their personal data.
“It’s hard for me to see on what basis they would be able to convince a New Zealand media agency from taking down an article that’s lawfully on their site here and accessible worldwide,” Stewart said.
“I don’t see any obvious avenue for them to get it taken down unless it’s clearly wrong or defamatory. Normally before things go up online, news agencies are forming their own views about lawfulness, and then if they’ve got any doubts, then they’ll run it past their own legal adviser.”