The Streisand Effect – demand letters in a Web 2.0 world

Presentation to the Middlesex Law Association.


The “Streisand effect” is what happens when someone tries to suppress something and the opposite occurs.  The act of suppressing it raises the profile, making it much more well known than it otherwise would have been.

Wikipedia defines it as:

The Streisand effect is an Internet phenomenon where an attempt to censor or remove a piece of information backfires, causing the information to be widely publicized. Examples of such attempts include censoring a photograph, a number, a file, or a website (for example via a cease-and-desist letter). Instead of being suppressed, the information quickly receives extensive publicity, often being widely mirrored across the Internet, or distributed on file-sharing networks.

Note that I’m cited as a source in the Wikipedia article – not sure if this advances the notion that Wikipedia is unreliable because it uses dubious sources, or the notion that it is reliable because it uses authoritative sources?  

That source reference is a Free Press article I wrote on the subject.

The term was coined by Mike Masnick of the Techdirt blog (a blog I recommend following) in 2005.

So why the Streisand effect?

The name came from a story that surfaced when an environmentalist taking photographs of the entire California coastline to track erosion included a photo of Barbra Streisand’s house.  The photo was one of 12,000 posted on the web site.

Streisand claimed the picture violated anti-paparazzi laws and demanded it be taken offline.  They refused.  She sued, claiming $10 million US in damages.

Few people would have cared about the uninteresting shot of the coastline had Streisand not reacted to the photo.  Instead, her actions caused a whirlwind of media coverage and gave mass exposure to the photo.

Here’s a page from the site for the California coastline project that talks about it: 

The site includes:

  • The image of her house.
  • Copies of the demand letters.
  • Copies of the court records.
  • An image of the cheque she paid for court costs.
  • Links to many articles that appeared in the press.

The FedEx example

Another example happened to FedEx when it threatened legal action to shut down the website of a young man creating home furnishings out of FedEx boxes.

Jose Avila, a computer programmer from Arizona, was unable to afford furniture for his new apartment. He decided to pursue an unusual and innovative solution to his problem by designing and building home furniture for himself using nothing but FedEx boxes and supplies.

Pleased with his work, the computer programmer decided to create a website dedicated to his work, using the domain

FedEx was not amused and sent Avila letters demanding he take down his website and threatened a lawsuit.

The company claimed the website infringed on its trademark and copyright.  Avila simply posted the FedEx letters on his site — resulting in more attention.

The website exploded into a mass of news and media coverage — little of it sympathetic to FedEx.

The site is no longer live – but thanks to the Wayback machine – here are a couple of views of what it looked like at the time:

Canon Fake Chuck Westfall example

Chuck Westfall is a camera tech guru and technical adviser for Canon.

Never heard of him?  As Techdirt points out: “before this, who actually cared about a fake blog of a guy most people had no clue even existed?”

Someone set up a parody site called Fake Chuck Westfall that Canon took a dislike to.  Their letter to try to stop the site didn’t work, was published and ridiculed, and more people found out about the site.

The reasons for the failures

There are several reasons why attempts to suppress can backfire. 

  • The claims in the demand may be technically correct, but little real harm is being done.
  • There is no wrong other than the person has an opinion you don’t like.
  • The claims may be so exaggerated and over-reaching that the demand loses credibility.
  • The claims are just plain wrong, or are against the wrong entity, making it clear that the writer does not understand the issues or how the internet works.

What are the alternatives?

  • Do nothing, in the hopes that the few people that see it will not pay much attention to it.
  • Consider whether it can be turned to your advantage.  Consider, for example, whether FedEx could have done something to get some positive press from it.
  • Have the client post its own comments.  For example, if it is a customer service issue, apologize and say what the business’s policy is, or thank the person for pointing it out and that you have changed the policy so it won’t happen again, or how what happened is counter to policy.  Or if the person got their facts wrong, point out what the facts really are. 
  • Offer to work with the person.  For example, some suggested that Hasbro and Mattel should have made a deal with the 2 brothers from India who designed the popular Scrabulous game on Facebook, rather than shutting them down for infringements on their Scrabble game. 
  • If a letter must be sent be very careful with the drafting.  Keep in mind that you are drafting it for multiple audiences, including the offender, their lawyer, the public, and the courts.  Assume the letter will be published and ridiculed.  Be firm but don’t go over the top or make specious claims or demands that will result in your position losing credibility.
  • If the entity offending is a reputable firm, deal with them directly and quietly.  Resist the temptation to air the beef in public.  For example, if Google Street shows images that may violate privacy.

The nastygram decision process:

1. Determine why the client is upset

2. Determine what result the client wants

3. Determine what the other party has done

4. Determine if what the other party has done is legally or otherwise improper

5. Determine what remedies/results are possible/likely

6. Assume the nastygram will be made public and ridiculed

7. Consider if sending a nastygram might do more harm than good by attracting more attention (the “Streisand effect”)

8. Discuss all the above with the client

9. If a nastygram is warranted, word it carefully

If interested in more:

Search for “Streisand effect” on Techdirt or on my blog.

Check the sources in the Wikipedia article

See this blog devoted to the Streisand effect.

Search for the “Streisand effect” on the net. 


My contact info: