What if you woke up one day and found that someone had posted a litany of unfounded accusations about you on a website?
What if you tried to ignore the website but then discovered it was popping up at the top of search results on your name, keeping you from getting job offers, making people at work snicker about you behind your back, even interfering with some of your friendships?
This is the nightmare facing Surya Panditi, Cisco’s senior vice president and general manager of Service Provider Networking Group, a unit responsible for some of the company’s most advanced networking products.
For two years, he has been unsuccessfully trying to get rid of a website hosted on WordPress.com that accuses of him of incompetence and corruption at work and having an affair. Now, after exhausting all other ideas, he has hired lawyer Hank Burgoyne and is suing.
“At first, I thought, it would go away. Who really cares about my personal life?” Panditi tells Business Insider. “But it lingered and I needed to get someone like Hank to help me. It was hurting me in terms of personal life and professional life, these false accusations.”
Panditi’s legal battle won’t be easy, however, because he has no idea who is responsible for the website and before he can get a judge to hear the case, he has to go on a manhunt to try and find out. Along the way, he may end up exposing a notorious Cisco leaker who has been targeting the company for years.
How NOT To Get A Website Removed
Before filing the lawsuit, Panditi approached WordPress.com and even Google about getting the website removed from the internet or from Google’s search results.
“I sent an email to WordPress and got a standard response that they were not going to do anything. I tried contacting Google. I got no response,” Panditi says.
Web hosting companies like Automattic’s WordPress.com, Google, Microsoft, “do not take content down without a court order finding these statements are defamatory,” Burgoyne tells us.
In fact, a WordPress.com spokesperson confirmed that this is the company’s policy and pointed us to its support pages, which say: “If we receive a complaint and are not in a position to make a determination (for example whether something is defamatory or not), we defer to the judgment of a court.”
Panditi also tried hiring a so-called reputation management firm, which promises to clean up such things. As we’ve previously reported, some of these firms are notoriously sleazy.
He paid one of them, but “it didn’t work,” Panditi says.
Exposing A Corporate Whistleblower
After hiring a lawyer, Panditi filed a suit in California’s San Francisco Superior Court on June 27 against the owner of the website. Since the owner of the website is unknown, however, Burgoyne is seeking against people who may have information.
One person Panditi is trying to track down and identify is someone who has been leaking Cisco gossip and inside info for years, known only by his anonymous username “Corporate Renegade.”
Corporate Renegade is to Cisco what famous Microsoft inside blogger “Mini-Microsoft” was to Microsoft. Most of Corporate Renegade’s leaks are highly critical of Cisco and made to a Cisco blogger also known to be critical of the company, Brad Reese (who writes a Cisco blog named after himself, bradreese.com).
Panditi is after Corporate Renegade because the leaker made comments on the Brad Reese blog about Panditi’s love life, similar to the accusations on the website. His comments were also showing up in Google search results until Brad Reese removed them.
Panditi’s lawyers subpoenaed Brad Reese looking for records on Corporate Renegade, Reese told Business Insider: “A sheriff knocked on my partner’s door and said, here’s a subpoena.”
The lawyers asked for Reese’s log records, such as IP addresses, on comments made by Corporate Renegade over about the last two years. Reese tells us that he has no idea who the commenter is but suspects he is someone inside Cisco or very close to the company.
Who Is Really Responsible?
That doesn’t mean that Corporate Renegade is responsible for the website, only that he knew the gossip.
“I never even commented on this executive other than relaying what was said about him,” Corporate Renegade said about the hunt to find him in a commented posted on Brad Reese’s blog.
There’s also some reason to believe that someone other than Corporate Renegade could be responsible.
Months before the website appeared, someone sent Reese an anonymous email, saying he was “forced out” of Cisco. That email contained a bunch of accusations against Panditi that echoed what was written on the website. It concluded “No one at Cisco cares.” Reese posted the email on his blog for a short time, and it has been included as evidence in the lawsuit.
But Corporate Renegade’s leaks began long before this website was posted and have continued since. So he may not be someone who was “forced out” of Cisco.
Still, Panditi remains focused on Corporate Renegade because he has no other leads, he tells us. The website, “came out of the blue,” Panditi tells us.
A Huge Legal Bill
Burgoyne says that Panditi doesn’t have a choice but to try and expose the identify of Corporate Renegade.
That’s because the law currently leans in favour of freedom of speech, making it very difficult for people to get critical websites taken down, Burgoyne says. In order for a blog, comment or site to be declared by a judge as defamation, the courts prefer that a defendant be present in court.
“In a situation like this, where you don’t know who [wrote the website] who the defendant is, you can’t move the case forward until you’ve exhausted every effort to find them. After months of discovery, if you haven’t found them, you can go back to court and ask to serve the lawsuit by means of ‘service by publication’ for example by publishing a notice of the lawsuit in a newspaper,” Burgoyne says.
And that’s, of course, a double-edged sword. The more publicity a defamation lawsuit gets, the more people hear the allegedly libelous gossip.
In the meantime, this is racking up a considerable legal bill for Panditi. While Panditi wouldn’t confirm how much he’s willing to spend, Burgoyne says that a case like this could cost $US100,000 or more.
Although Panditi is suing for damages, the fact is, he really just wants the website taken down.
“First and foremost, I want to clear my name. I hold myself to very high ethical standards and I want people to know me for who I am, judge me for my merits not on these false accusations,” he says.
And his advice for others who wake up to find an internet troll ruining their life. Don’t wait. It won’t go away by itself. Hire a lawyer immediately.
Cisco declined comment on this story.
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