Scores of bogus copyright claims targeting Maltese websites and blogs are being made to Google in an apparent attempt to suppress articles about alleged fraudster and former Vitals CEO Ram Tumuluri.

Since March, at least 42 complaints have been submitted to Google requesting articles about Tumuluri be removed from the company’s search results.

Those making the complaints falsely claim that articles written by Times of Malta and other outlets copied their work and should be removed from search results.

The tactic is one increasingly used by bad actors online, with one anti-corruption organisation saying such complaints are among the strategies employed by a “growing disinformation-for-hire industry”.

Vitals Global Healthcare is at the centre of criminal proceedings against about two dozen past and present government officials – including former prime minister Joseph Muscat – lawyers, accountants and businessmen facing various charges of money laundering and corruption in relation to a Muscat-government deal for the operation of three State hospitals. 

The campaign to clean up Tumuluri’s online reputation was uncovered by Times of Malta after it reviewed a similar copyright complaint targeting satirical website Bis-Serjetà.

While the complaint was not in reference to Tumuluri, a dive into the complainant’s activities revealed other copyright claims, including one against an article about the former Vitals boss written by murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Further research uncovered scores of other copyright complaints submitted by 17 different internet users over the past few months, all of them targeting articles about Tumuluri.

The complaints

In each instance, the complainant alleges that an article they claim to have authored was plagiarised while supplying the website address, or URL, of the original work and the infringing article.

In most cases, blogging site is referenced as the original material, though articles by Times of Malta, MaltaToday and The Shift News are also among those cited. None of the journalists who authored those articles match the names of the complainants.

According to records of the complaints available at the Lumen website – a Harvard University-affiliated archive of online takedown requests formerly known as Chilling Effect – all the complaints use the same wording:

“Greetings, I am the author of the article [URL]. The administration of the site [target URL] copied material from my [URL] and further in the text. The internet Copyright Protection Act (DMCA) allows from the search results in accordance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.” (sic)

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a US law introduced in 1998 that criminalises the theft and unauthorised distribution of intellectual property online.

Times of Malta has not been able to verify if a complaint against The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation used the same wording due to the contents of the complaint being redacted, though Tumuluri is referenced in the article and the complaint was submitted the same day as another targeting a different platform.  Almost all of the complaints were made against Maltese websites, with three South Asian sites also targeted for their reporting on Tumuluri.

While the complaints were submitted over a three-month period, some days saw a flurry of activity, with March 11 seeing some 13 complaints issued against Times of Malta, Lovin Malta, Illum and The Shift News, among others.

An example of one the copyright claims submitted to Google.An example of one the copyright claims submitted to Google.

Who is making the complaints?

Although 17 names are listed as being behind the complaints, the text common to all the submissions suggests one person or organisation is coordinating the campaign or that some of the names could be pseudonyms.

According to Google transparency reports, all but one of the claimants only started making complaints in March, when those targeting articles about Tumuluri started surfacing.

The complaints were issued in the US, UK and Germany and submitted by a host of users with names including Helen Abdul, Mark Reid, Amanda Daimon, Laura Khan and Eulalia Koss, among others.

Times of Malta contacted Tumuluri through his local lawyer to establish if he made the complaints personally or asked others to do so on his behalf, but no response has been received at the time of publication.

Misfire or red herring?

While almost all the complaints target articles about Tumuluri, one is curiously in reference to a satirical article published by Bis-Serjetà about former SiGMA CEO Eman Pulis.

While not concerning the former Vitals boss, the complaint against Bis-Serjetà was submitted by a user who also made complaints about articles written about Tumuluri and followed the same wording as the other claims.

When contacted, Pulis said he didn’t know about the complaint, however, and had “no problem” with the article which was a satire about him vowing to shut down Malta International Airport.

A tried and tested technique?

Should Tumuluri have made the complaints or asked others to do so, it would not be the first time alleged fraudsters have used the practice to suppress articles about themselves.

Last February, the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) said a Spanish reputation management company had helped more than 14,000 clients including drug traffickers and cryptocurrency scammers to launder their reputations online.

The OCCRP said falsified copyright claims were among the tactics used by the company, which it said had “intimidated journalists, manipulated search engines to hide information and churned out fake news.”

Meanwhile in November, publication Project Brazen said their investigation into Indian businessman Gaurav Kumar Srivastava, who they alleged posed as a CIA operative to defraud prominent businessmen, had been removed from Google search results using the same technique.

Calling the incident a “fraudulent takedown,” they said the technique was a “glaring example of how copyright laws are abused to launder the reputations of fraudsters and bury damning information.”

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