Court Orders Google to Remove Libelous Search Results

Google logo for blogBlogger Jon Mitchell, a staff writer at online magazine ReadWrite recently wrote an article headlined: Court Rules — Wrongly — That Google Is A Publisher. 

The court was in Australia, and it said that Google was a publisher for the content of its search results, and could therefore be found guilty of libel.

Mr. Mitchell is surely a fine reporter, but I don’t agree with his conclusion that Google should be exempt from libel suits over its refusal to remove search results that link to content a court had ordered removed. Courts have already ruled that the sites that host libelous content must remove it when asked to do so.  Why should Google be different?

Anyone who’s ever been the victim of search engine results that lead to false, libelous, or completely wrong search results is likely to agree with me that Google has the ability – and should have the responsibility – of removing links it indexes to libelous content published by others.

That’s what the jury said in the case of Australian resident Michael Trkulja, who won a suit against Yahoo for $225,000 in damages after media reports that he was a criminal shot after a rival gang hired a hitman to kill him. In fact, he has never been convicted of any criminal activity, so the jury ruled that Yahoo was liable.

Meanwhile, many other sites had picked up the original commentary, embellishing and adding to it along the way.  Google indexed those search results, so that long after the original publisher removed the story a court found libelous, search results linked to sites repeating it.

For two years, Trkulja and his lawyers tried to get Google to remove the search results linking to stories that repeated the content a court had found libelous, without results.  So he sued – and an Australian jury ordered the links removed, and awarded him $200,000 in damages.

Google is likely to appeal, because if the ruling stands, it will open the floodgates to global litigation.  I tried a search today, and two weeks after the Australian court order, Google still returns the same results. 

Over six weeks after a Japanese court injunction over Google auto-complete suggestions that put people’s names next to unsavory terms, the auto-complete results are also unchanged.  (The auto-complete problem affects U.S. politician Rick Santorum, a Japanese man who got name suppression from the courts, and anyone with an unfortunate name like poor Jenny Kills.  Enter Mr. Santorum’s name and you may wind up with an SEO-optimized prank that defines his name in scatological terms.  Enter hers, and the search giant might suggest a link to “Jenny kills kittens.”)

The company’s standard reply is that search results reflects content and information available on the web, and that Google doesn’t control it.  There’s some truth in that.

There are millions of individual websites and blogs out there, but only a few large search engines.  The time and cost burden of tracking down every single site and suing to have content removed makes suing Google, Yahoo and the other search engines seem like an attractive alternative. Of course, that’s only possible if this court ruling stands.  Today, in most countries, Google and the other search giants are immune to such litigation.

Still, a respected court has set a precedent. So I think that litigation will continue – and I hope that more and more courts around the world hold Google liable for continuing to link to content that  courts find illegal or libelous. 

As Mr. Mitchel wrote in his ReadWrite article, “Google is the gateway to the Web for millions of people, and what is true on Google is simply the truth as far as many uncritical searchers are concerned.”

That’s the real issue.  Google is the gatekeeper, and it has the power to control its search results whether it chooses to admit it or not. That’s why I hope that Google fails in any attempts to evade its responsibilities in the Australian case — and faces increasing litigation and scrutiny worldwide.  What do you think?

Graphic credit:  Find Your Search made this image available on Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

About debmcalister

I'm a Dallas-based marketing consultant and writer, who specializes in helping start-up technology companies grow. I write (books, articles, and blogs) about marketing, technology, and social media. This blog is about all of those -- and the funny ways in which they interesect with everyday life. It's also the place where I publish general articles on topics that interest me -- including commentary about the acting and film communities, since I have both a son and grandson who are performers.
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