When Dennis Timand Clemmensen’s 14-year-old daughter Silke became withdrawn and stopped wanting to go to school, he did what many parents in his circumstances would do, and went online. Pulling up Google, he searched for her name. “I don’t remember exactly what the guys from her school were saying,” he tells me, “but it was something like: ‘She’s a hooker, she’ll go to bed with everybody.’” Abusive messages appeared on Facebook and Instagram.
He was instantly alarmed. “I’d seen some girls had committed suicide because of the bad things that had been written about them on the internet, and I thought, ‘This isn’t good. I want to prevent this.’” So Clemmensen called his childhood friend, William Atak, who runs an SEO and reputation management firm, Atak A/S, in their home country of Denmark. Companies turn to Atak when they want unflattering information pushed down Google’s search results. It’s controversial work, particularly if you believe that the internet should be open, transparent and not manipulated by PR consultants, but there is certainly a market for Atak’s skills.
Atak helped Clemmensen get the offending material offline. First, he used keyword analysis to throw up the webpages on which Silke was being written about, and then his team contacted the webmasters and got the content taken down. It was a favour for a friend. Afterwards, however, Atak got to thinking: what if there was a broader market for his skills than corporate executives?
He remembered a conversation he’d had with a client in 2013, who had come to him to get negative publicity pushed down Google results. Atak had obliged. Then, the client asked for some sort of guarantee that the buried results wouldn’t surface again. “I told him you can never be 100 per cent sure,” Atak says. They agreed upon a monthly retainer — a sort of insurance product — so that if the content reappeared, Atak would remove it again.
Now, Atak plans to introduce one of the first products of its kind – an anti-cyberbullying and revenge porn insurance that will provide security for bullied teens and protection from jilted ex-partners. Atak’s firm has offered this as an employee benefit to companies it works with since 2015, in partnership with insurance provider AIG, but he plans to roll it out as a direct-to-consumer product within the next year.
It will, he says, cover any kind of harassment or bullying, any kind of threat or extortion online – “fake news, fake profiles [impersonating you], fake information about your life, confidential information about you or your partner, any revenge porn, any distracting or abusive photos or videos of you and your life, and any kind of humiliation about you online”. Atak caveats the final point by explaining that the policy won’t cover legitimate free speech: “If I write something online that says, ‘You’re stupid,’ that’s humiliating of course, but everyone has the right to think of you as stupid.”
As Atak prepares his insurance product – he plans to launch in the UK in September 2019 – he has already become an unlikely white knight for Danish teenagers who are victims of cyberbullying, albeit only the ones who can afford to pay. He tells me he gets teenagers and their families contacting him every month to ask for help in taking down unwanted content, be it bullying or revenge porn (which refers to the non-consensual sharing of someone’s intimate photos).
Of these enquiries, he takes on around eight teenagers a year who are able to pay his costs. One case he worked on involved a 15-year-old girl whose naked images ended up on a “crazy” amount of Russian porn sites. “We spent a lot of time trying to figure out who was behind the websites, which was difficult because it was on the dark web,” he says. Eventually, they managed to contact the administrators and get the images removed after highlighting that the girl was below the legal age of consent.
When launched, Atak’s software, which is marketed under the brand SAFEonNET, will run hundreds of word combinations, trawling the internet and dark web to find information that is being used to cause distress to his clients. “We contact any kind of media or website that are publishing this information, whatever it is, that’s out there,” he says.
“When we figure out who is the owner of the main web server, we’ll contact the web server providers, and inform them that there is infringing, violating content on their server, and we want them to shut down immediately.” If that doesn’t work, Atak’s team assumes power of attorney on behalf of their clients, and makes reports to police. And if content can’t be removed from the internet entirely, they bury it, pushing it into the bowels of Google’s search results until it’s not noticeable.
Atak believes there’s a market for his insurance product, and he could be right. According to data from the PEW Research Center, 59 per cent of US teenagers have been bullied online, while non-consensual sexual images continues to rise. “The internet is getting bigger and bigger, and you’ll always have people thinking, ‘This won’t hurt anyone,’” Atak says. “People say, ‘Words don’t hurt you.’ People have always said that, for hundreds of years. But they don’t understand the consequences of how much they’re hurting people.”
Atak A/S isn’t the first company to offer anti-cyberbullying insurance. That honour goes to insurance provider Chubb, which introduced cyberbullying insurance in 2016. Interestingly, its product also provides reimbursement for therapy costs, in addition to offering PR assistance and scrubbing offending content from online searches.
Chubb representative Mike Tanenbaum says that it was important the package include therapy reimbursement, as “cyber breaches are emotionally tough situations… the policy creates support mechanisms to help people navigate through a tough emotional situation”. He believes that, one day, the cyberbullying insurance industry could be as developed, and as lucrative, as the car insurance or home insurance industry. “As cyber threats evolve, cyber insurance – including coverage for cyberbullying and cyber breach of privacy – will continue to play a key role in the awareness, preparedness and resiliency of individuals and families,” he says.
Two years on from her cyberbullying ordeal, Silke is doing well. She’s recently had a baby, Isaac, and mother and son are thriving. Meanwhile, Atak is dealing with a more pressing matter closer to home: his five-year-old son has been caught bullying his classmates. Atak laughs grimly as he tells me about it. “I’m actually one of Scandinavia’s most prominent experts in this… It’s crazy.”
More great stories from WIRED
? World-class chef rates the best vegan burgers in the UK
? TikTok is fuelling India’s deadly hate speech epidemic
? The foods you’ll really need to stockpile for no-deal Brexit
♻️ The truth behind the UK’s biggest recycling myths
?? How is the internet still obsessed with Myers-Briggs?