Typically, when I’m asked to describe what Google does, I launch into a description that goes something like this: “A search engine like Google is designed to crawl through the web, picking up information about each page that’s out there and putting that information into some sort of database. Then, when a user types in a few choice words, the site does some basic calculations and pulls together a list of everything that’s available that might relate to those little search phrases.”
This is the accepted narrative that describes what a search engine is and what it’s designed to do, and up until recently, it’s been the argument Google uses when it is challenged in court. Typically, the developers of the site are considered innocent parties when the site finds things that are a little distasteful or disgusting. They simply claim that they don’t generate information. Instead, they just catalog it.
However, this argument didn’t quite hold water in a German courtroom in January. In fact, Google had a spectacular loss in this particular case, and even though reports suggest that the site plans to appeal that ruling, it could have a deep impact on the reputation management industry.
This isn’t the first time that Google has been sued, of course. Like most big companies with a worldwide presence, Google is subject to an intense amount of scrutiny, and when something goes wrong, it’s common for lawyers to get involved and then the paperwork starts to fly. But in the past, those cases have been pretty straightforward affairs, and often favored Google.
For example, when a marketing officer’s head-and-shoulders photograph appeared on a blog posting discussing the attractiveness of people in business, and that executive saw that the offensive blog post rise to the top of search results for her name, a lawsuit was filed, as expected. However, Google responded to that lawsuit by allegedly telling the executive to contact the owner of the blog directly, as there was little Google could do to remove the photo. That case is still cranking through American courts.
Similarly, when an Italian man noticed that the words “conman” and “fraud” (I’ve translated from the Italian here) were placed after his name in search results, he sued Google and he won that case. But once again, Google claimed that it shouldn’t be responsible for the outcome, because the algorithm determined what terms came after the man’s name. As a result, they haven’t changed their policies in any major way.
To me, Google seems to be following solid logic in both of these cases. They company has built a tool, and they don’t actually feed information into that tool. It’s a bit like blaming a car manufacturer for the roads a car slides along. Sure, the car needs the roads in order to deliver a safe, smooth ride, but the people who developed the car don’t build the roads. As a result, the engineers at the car company shouldn’t be held liable for any bumps a driver might feel during a journey.
However, this analogy falls apart – Google is somewhat responsible for building the “roads” used during an online search. After all, Google’s algorithms determine how high a site ranks in search results. While the behavior of hundreds of thousands of users might be a factor in the performance of the site, the company has a significant amount of control over how the site works and how results are delivered. It’s a little silly to suggest that they do not.
Similarly, Google does have the ability to block specific web pages from results. Users fill out a form, send it in and wait for a response. I’ve been through this process myself, in fact, when an image and some text I pulled together for a private blog ended up on a commercial website. I petitioned to have it removed, and poof! It was gone. It’s easy enough to suggest that the site could do the same for unsavory content.
The German Case
And that’s what this case in Germany is all about. Essentially, the main player in this case had some pretty unsavory photographs appearing when people searched for his name online, and while he had filed suits in order to block the publication of those images, they were still appearing years later. So, this man filed a suit and demanded that Google remove all of the photographs that were attached to his name and this event. And the judge ordered Google to comply.
Now, I have no doubt that the experts at Google could comply with this order. It’s a little unusual, but I think they could probably create some sort of recognition software that would recognize these photos and keep them from appearing in search results with the man’s name. Creating those sorts of screens couldn’t be more time-consuming than fighting a man in courtrooms for years, right?
But this sort of ruling could create a precedent which forces Google to operate like an online nanny, searching and removing images that might offend someone. How could they decide what’s offensive? How much time would that take?
The target of this particular lawsuit suggests in an interview that lawsuits could help to solve this responsibility problem. In essence, he suggests that only people who have completed court cases should be able to remove their photos from Google. It seems smart, but again, I have some concerns. Lawsuits like this are very expensive, and not everyone has the money to hire a lawyer and take time away from work in order to appear in court. Similarly, court cases take months or years to resolve, and they generate a lot of web interest. As a result, people who file often find that their problems are magnified as the case moves forward, and they suddenly have much MORE data to remove.
At the moment, this is a German case and it doesn’t really apply to us. But still, I worry about the larger repercussions of this case.
What will it mean for Google? And how should people attacked online via Google proceed in view of this case? I’m watching and waiting, but I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.
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