Thursday, December 20, 2012

Suing Google Doesn't Always Work

by Christopher Danzig

Even stately Englishmen are no match for Google.

I had never heard of Max Mosley until yesterday, when I read he was suing Google in Europe to block all search results regarding his alleged participation in some sort of Nazi sex orgy.

Ironically, when you search for Mosley’s name now, you get a zillion news stories with headlines like “Max Mosley sues Google over ‘Nazi orgy’ search results‎.”

Let’s learn more about Mosley, the former president of Formula One, and his decidedly unsexy legal battle against Google….

From The Guardian:

Max Mosley is suing Google in France and Germany in an attempt to force the internet company to monitor and censor search results about his alleged sado-masochistic orgy.

The former Formula One boss revealed he is taking legal action against Google during his testimony before the Leveson inquiry at London’s royal courts of justice on Thursday.

Mosley is battling to remove from the internet false and libellous references to an alleged “Nazi-themed” orgy and a News of the World video. …

“The fundamental thing is that Google could stop this appearing but they don’t or won’t as a matter of principle,” he told the inquiry. “The really dangerous things are the search engines.”

Mosley is also threatening to sue Google in California.

And this is not the first time public figures have not-so-nicely asked Google to censor search results they dislike. The other obvious case involves Rick Santorum, who made headlines in the fall criticizing the unpleasant top Google result for his last name. In 2003, sex columnist Dan Savage started the bare-bones website, Spreading Santorum, which simply defines his last name as a nasty sexual term, in response to what Savage perceived as the former senator’s anti-gay statements.

In both Mosley’s and Santorum’s cases, the miffed public figures insinuated that Google could eliminate the search results if it wanted to. Santorum claimed his conservative ideology was the reason Google refused to do anything about the search ranking.

But Google does protect itself legally. When it receives specific, court-ordered takedown notices, from the government or individuals, it frequently complies. (If you have ever run searches relating to illegal music or movie sharing, DMCA takedown notifications often appear on the Google search results page.) Mosley even acknowledged that Google has taken down hundreds of references to the allegedly defamatory stories. But the company will not honor personal requests or requests to censor entire search terms.

At this point, Google spokespeople have a pretty tight statement they use to explain their actions. The company’s response to Mosley was almost exactly the same as it was to Santorum:

“Google’s search results reflect the information available on billions of web pages on the internet. We don’t, and can’t, control what others post online, but when we’re told that a specific page is illegal under a court order, then we move quickly to remove it from our search results.”

On a practical level, Tim Worstall at Forbes gives a good explanation of why the act of suing search engines simply creates more stories for them to index:

[A]ny court case arguing that Google must not add to the search engine stories which mention the untrue allegations will be reportable: for court cases and evidence are reportable under privilege. So every time Mosley sues he’s generating more newspaper pieces which Google can, entirely legitimately, add to the index. For they’ve been reported under privilege.

Finding yourself on the Internet for unflattering reasons can be humiliating, especially if the information is untrue. A whole cottage industry has grown up around people trying to prevent their old mugshots from being easily searchable. Even Natalie Portman has said she won’t do nude scenes in movies because she doesn’t want the scenes ending up online.

For better or worse, Google is the gatekeeper for the online world we live in. It would be a completely unfeasible system if people could pick and choose, without a specific legal justification, what kinds of results to allow search engines to index. It is for the same reason news outlets will not remove stories just because someone doesn’t approve of the coverage. I feel bad for Mr. Mosley, but he’s only making things worse for himself. And his attorneys should know better.

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