Two years ago we reported on a wave of bogus DMCA notices that targeted various adult sites. Many of those platforms were so-called ‘hentai’ sites which focus on adult-orientated comics and cartoons.
The theory was that these bogus notices were sent by rivals or competitors to these platforms in an effort to damage their presence on the web. While unaffected by that wave, the operator of adult site Rule34 – a site with around 100 million monthly visitors – now believes he is being targeted in a similar but entirely more serious way.
Traffic to Rule34’s Homepage Nosedives
In discussions with TorrentFreak this week, the operator of Rule34 explained that sometime around July 13, 2021, Google stopped sending all traffic to the site’s homepage at Rule34.xxx. The immediate concern was that someone had sent a DMCA notice complaining about the page which, incidentally, carries no infringing content.
However, after checking with Google the company confirmed that copyright wasn’t the problem.
“We have no record of the following URLs having been removed from Google’s search index due to a legal complaint under the DMCA: https://rule34.xxx/. If you believe this is in error, please check the URLs in question again,” Google responded.
“If your site wasn’t removed due to a legal complaint and you don’t believe it violates our Webmaster Guidelines, but it isn’t appearing in Google search results or isn’t performing as well as before, you can request reconsideration of your site.”
As the image above shows, the impact of the delisting was clear but the reasons were less so. That was until Rule34 began digging and found something pretty unsettling.
Google Reveals That Content Was Indeed Removed
By using the query ‘site:rule34.xxx rule34’ and scrolling to the bottom of the search results, Rule34’s operator found a notice from Google: ‘Suspected child abuse content has been removed from this page’
While Rule34 is clearly an adult site (The Internet’s informal ‘Rule 34‘ asserts that pornography exists for every conceivable topic), its operator is adamant that his platform has done nothing wrong and would not allow such material, certainly not on the front page.
As things stand, Rule34’s operator believes that rather than using bogus DMCA notices to have sites like his delisted, people could be turning to CSAM complaints instead since, as far as he’s aware, there is no way to effectively counter them. So the big question remains: who is behind it?
No Clear Culprit But There Are Options
Early on in our discussions the operator of Rule34 mentioned contact with Russian telecoms watchdog Roscomnadzor which issued a complaint to the site a couple of months ago. The entity, which administers Russia’s site-blocking regime (which covers everything from piracy to terrorism), wrote to Rule34 claiming that there was CSAM on the site’s homepage and, if it wasn’t removed, the site would be blocked in Russia.
“We repeatedly asked them what on our front page was [CSAM] but they couldn’t clarify. We then replaced the only thing on there, our logo. But they still blocked the site in Russia. I guess they didn’t like the meme,” he explains.
However, blocking in Russia is carried out by local ISPs, not Google, and Rule34’s operator says that as far as he can see, the site has been removed from Google everywhere, not just Russia.
“From what I’m seeing, the front page is gone in every region. My hypothesis on the situation is that Google doesn’t verify CSAM complaints, so it would be very prone to abuse as there is no counter-form in this case,” he explains.
The other possibility is that Google acted on another complaint. Rule34 shared a complaint with TF that was sent to Cloudflare which claimed that the site “is directed at underage audiences using bright colors and familiar characters from tv shows like my little pony.”
“I do not want to be contacted about this, that is why my details are intentionally false,” the complainant added while noting that the report had also been sent to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).
In response, Rule34 contacted NCMEC to ask which URLs were problematic but they said they were unable to confirm if any reports had been made.
“This in itself is very strange, considering if any of the complaints were valid then I should remove said content? I firmly believe that CSAM complaints are being weaponized as a tool for censorship as Google becomes better by catching bogus DMCAs,” Rule34’s operator says.
Legal Action is Being Prepared
In order to get to the bottom of the problem, Rule34’s lawyers submitted a letter to Google and while the company’s lawyers say Google is “working on it”, a month has passed with no further action.
“We’re currently filing for a suit and the date will likely be somewhere next month. My lawyer said if Google does restore the page before the date I can always cancel. I have little faith Google will actually do anything without it but we’ll see,” the site’s operator explains.
It will be interesting to see what information Google provides but in common with DMCA anti-circumvention notices, there doesn’t appear to be a straightforward appeals process to tackle problematic notices. So, in the event this is indeed a malicious attack and not simply a huge mistake, this route could represent yet another weapon in the toolbox for those seeking to hurt or censor rivals.