Internet

Woman haunts ex online for years after breakup

May 9, 2013 at 4:55 AM ET

Courtesy of Lee David Clayworth
Courtesy of Lee David Clayworth
Lee David Clayworth has been struggling to gain employment. He suspects that may be due to what potential employers see if they enter his name into a search engine.

Ah, romance. Boy meets girl. Boy dates girl. Boy dumps girl. Girl embarks on a campaign of online harassment that lands her a prison sentence. Girl flees country.

Lee David Clayworth, 35, met Lee Ching Yan, 29, while he was teaching at an international school in Malaysia. They began casually dating in mid-2010, said Clayworth, who called it quits by December. "I decided to go my own way," he told TODAY, describing a relationship that at times "wasn't the healthiest." Unfortunately, he said, the dumping "didn't go down so well with her."

After the split, Yan broke into Clayworth's home and took his laptop, external hard drive, teaching portfolio and other significant personal belongings, he said.

"And then this online onslaught started," Clayworth said. "My email account was hacked into, my Skype account was hacked into. Emails started coming from my account ... claiming that I'm having sex with underage students."

Personal photos which he'd stored on his laptop started appearing, along with his full name and a variety of crude claims. By cramming the Internet with these publicly viewable posts, Yan managed to make it so that anyone searching for his name would immediately see all of the nastiness.

"First thing I thought," Clayworth said, "How do you do damage control on that?"

The answer is, not very easily. He began by writing to the contacts who'd been sent messages from his account, explaining the situation. But all the other harassment continued. "I was really shocked. I didn't know what to do," Clayworth said.

He got in touch with a lawyer and pursued the issue in a court in Malaysia, where he was granted a court order. Yan disregarded the court order and continued her onslaught, even after she was found in contempt of the court.

"The abovenamed Defendant, Lee Ching Yan," read the (translated) decision of the High Court of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, "be put into His Majesty The King's prison for contempt of this Honorable Court because ... the Defendant is repeatedly making the representations that the Plaintiff ..." And what follows is a list of things that Yan reportedly called Clayworth, including "pervert," "sex maniac," "criminal" and far, far worse.

But she never went to prison. "She fled the country," Clayworth said, and "things kept steamrolling on and on." The postings continued unabated.

"I'd email a website and say ... this is my situation, could you please remove the content?" He'd send copies of the court order, links to coverage of his case — including some by CBC Radio Canada — and hope for the best. "A majority of websites would ignore it, wouldn't even email me back." Search engine giants, such as Google and Bing, were also unresponsive.

Eventually, in December 2012, his teaching contract expired and Clayworth returned to Canada, to be near his family. Since then, he's been struggling to gain employment, which he suspects may be due to what potential employers see if they enter his name into a search engine.

"The main hurdle to [Clayworth's] success here is that he sued [Yan] in Malaysia," Jeff Hermes, director of the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, explained to TODAY.

Companies like Google, he said, "will only respond to court orders in certain jurisdictions." He offers that Clayworth could theoretically opt to refile in various jurisdictions, but he'd be facing an uphill battle thanks to different standards of freedom of speech in different countries.

When asked if he'd considered changing his name in order to escape his unfortunate search results, Clayworth responded that he thought about it, but didn't see it as the right solution. "I look at that as … why do I have to give up my identity? In a sense, some people might say that my identity is already given up in a way because of all the stuff that's out there, but ... I shouldn't have to do that."

"And then, what if," he proposes, "my identity gets changed? What if I get turned up somewhere with my new name?"

He paused, sounding tired. "I can only imagine what it's like to be a young person and have this happen. For young people, it must be overwhelming. At my age, it's overwhelming for me." He sighed, "This is never going to stop."

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