Two Separate Rulings In France Split Over Whether Google's Suggestion Algorithm Can Be Libelous

from the confusion-abounds dept

Reader Yann alerts us to an interesting set of lawsuits and decisions in France, both concerning the Google Suggest feature. One case involved a company named Direct Energie and the other with a company named CNFDI (both links to the Google translation of the news).

In both cases, the companies were upset that when people started searching on their company names, the first suggestion was their company name followed by the word "arnaque," which means "scam." Of course, as you probably know, Google Suggest works by finding the most common searches on what you've typed and letting you know. So, all this really meant was that an awful lot of people were doing searches questioning whether or not these two companies were scams. But, is Google liable for its algorithm accurately suggesting the most common searches associated with those company names? It appears the courts split on that decision (it's worth noting that there was one major difference between the lawsuits: Direct Energie sued under civil code, while CNFDI sued for libel -- which apparently makes it a criminal case in France.

With Direct Energie, the judge seemed to not really understand Google Suggest or how it worked, declaring that no algorithm could justify the prejudice caused by Google. He then got confused, saying that it was clearly Google's fault because the search on "direct energie arnaque" was not the first alphabetically in the list, nor did it have the highest number of results. Despite it being explained by Google, the judge seems to have totally ignored the reason why it was at the top of the list (the number of people searching for it). Because of this, he said it's no limit on free speech to force Google to change the results, and ordered Google to do so (though, did not allow for any damages to be awarded). This seems to get the basic facts backwards, and it seems quite ridiculous to find Google guilty of such a charge when all its actually doing is accurately counting up what people are legitimately searching for.

The CNFDI ruling, seems much more reasonable. There was one oddity (though it's probably got more to do with French law than with the judge), and that is that the judge ruled that Google could be liable for libel because the company had been informed by CNFDI of the issue, thereby removing any safe harbors. In the US, Section 230 safe harbors on libel thankfully do not get waived if you've been informed. Instead, they take the much more logical position that a third party service provider should never be blamed for actions of its users. Thus, it would be flat-out ridiculous to blame Google for the phrases people are searching for. But, even having lost its local "safe harbor" protections, the judge properly recognized that the suggestion came from the algorithm looking at what people were searching for, and noted that the suggestion was based on "a valid observation." On top of that, he pointed out that search engines are "important tools for the free circulation of ideas and information," and the fact that many people were questioning whether CNFDI was a scam was, in fact, important and potentially useful information, and thus not libelous by itself. Finally, the court also noted that forcing Google to remove such a suggestion would be too big a burden on free speech and citizens' rights.

It should be no surprise that I think the second ruling is much more sensible, while the first ruling makes little sense, and appears to have been decided without a full understanding of what Google's Suggest feature is or how it works. Still, I imagine we'll be seeing similar cases around the world... and hopefully they'll find themselves in front of judges more like the one that dealt with the CNFDI case...

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  1. identicon
    peter sklar, 7 Feb 2010 @ 8:04pm

    Prompt List

    One major issue everyone seems to ignore- the above posters, judge, lawyers, plaintiffs, etc- is that once a prompt word or phrase rises to the top of the subject list, it is virtually assured of staying there, since it will inevitably continue to receive more hits than anything lower on the list. This means that contrary to Google's claim, neither Google's algorithm system, nor an individual person conducting a random search, have any idea whatsoever what most people might have randomly searched for if the prompt list didn't exist. In other words, it is disingenuous and misleading for Google to assert that the prompt list merely reflects the random search choices of the public, when in truth it is the ordering of search terms that largely determines those choices. The prompt list is nothing more or less than a self-perpetuating syndrome. It is NOT an accurate reflection of day-to-day, or month-to-month, or year-to-year public curiosity.

    It therefore seems to me that Google is playing a much larger role than it would have the public and the courts believe in determining search results.

    If this is true, and such "results" amount to defamation, why does this not render Google liable?

    Just a question. -P

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