Could Google Results Be Libelous?

from the maybe-possibly... dept

Well, here’s a legal challenge: could the results of a Google search be considered libel? A man is suing Google, Yahoo, AOL and Time Warner (all the non-Google sites were using Google at the time – so this is really a Google issue) because a search on his name turned up misleading reports suggesting that he had done various illegal things in his accounting practice. The problem was that he never had done those things. Google, of course, points out that they just search the web and deliver the results, and if there’s false info on a page, it’s the problem of whoever is hosting the info. This all makes sense – and, in fact, many blogs seem to be reporting this story as if the guy is a complete moron for threatening Google for the results. That’s not all there is to this case, though. Where it gets trickier is that the guy claims the page Google pointed to never actually said what Google’s results suggest it did. Instead, he claims that Google reformatted the page in a way that makes him look guilty of things he never did. This is the part where I wish the article had a lot more detailed information – since normally Google just links to a page and wouldn’t reformat anything. My only guess is that the information was originally in a pdf file, which Google often tries to turn into an HTML file – and that’s where the reformatting may have occurred. Otherwise, perhaps the Google cache somehow reformatted the page. Does anyone have any more details on what actually happened? Either way – it does raise a question: if Google’s conversion of a file did result in false, damaging information, would they be guilty of libel? Update: Ah! As is pointed out in the comments, the libel claims is most likely based on the way Google puts together snippets from the page to create the “summary” found with the link in it’s results. There, it’s completely possible that a quick skim would show people something completely out of context. The question remains, however, is that libel? And, if it is, can you blame a computer program for libel?

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Comments on “Could Google Results Be Libelous?”

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Phil Ringnalda (user link) says:

PageRank, or RansomNote

My best guess is that although the suit apparently claims that it’s the fault of PageRank (that’s the third time I’ve read it reported that way), what’s actually at fault is RansomNote-style page descriptions: Google’s gotten a bit better about not taking three words from here, four words from there, two from over yonder, but the suit deals with results from last spring, when a search on his name might well have returned a description with his name and other people’s crimes, only separated by ellipses.

Brian Clark (user link) says:

Re: PageRank, or RansomNote

But RansomNote is still in working and, sadly, one of the best ways to invoke is to search on a two word or more phrase (like a name plus an industry) without the phrase doublequotes around it. Normally, it’s just stitching the meta-description together from the page contents, but even I’ve seen it produce amusing results (like once claiming that John Doe writes […] a gay weblog — take out the ellipses where Google stitched two completely different blog entries and it might appear like a declarative statement.)

The interesting thing is that the problem is completely context sensitive, making it a tough one for Google to do much about without just reducing the quality of the excerpt.

ed says:

It's probably not libel

One of the key element of civil libel is fault, i.e. the libeler printed the information with malice (or sometimes reckless disregard in the case of non-public figures).

I would guess that the Google software doesn’t have any true AI behind it and is therefore unable to form malicious intent. I would posit that it also can’t be exceedingly reckless as software just takes some public information and snippets it together. For the coders that might be negligent, but certainly not reckless.

Then again, with the courts these days, who knows what they (or a jury) might decide.

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