from the slippery-slope dept
Ars Technica has been following the story of Mario Gianna Masiá, who has been engaged in a legal battle with Google's Spanish arm over the search results for his business. His family opened the Camping Alfaques vacation spot in 1956, and in 1978 a tanker-truck explosion on a nearby road left 200 campers at the site dead, resulting in a lot of disturbing photos in the media. Masiá's father decided not to change the name of the business—it was still fully supported by locals and clients (the disaster was in no way their fault, and they were powerless to prevent it) and he said he had no desire to "erase history". Masiá later took over the business, and was shocked two-and-a-half years ago when, after one of Google's many adjustments to its algorithm, the grisly photos of the 30-year-old disaster began appearing near the top of the search results for the site. He wants them gone.
Now, to his credit, Masiá sounds a lot more reasonable than most people who have a problem with Google's results. He's noticed the bizarre fact that the generic query "camping alfaques" produces the disturbing images, while the more specific "accidente camping alfaques" doesn't. He understands that Google results are purely algorithmic, but feels this is a problem with that algorithm, and has been trying to get it fixed:
A regional IT consultant told him that the websites hosting the pictures had no interest in making any changes, so Mario decided to try Google. He began reporting the images as offensive, using Google's own tools, sometimes clicking on each five times a day; it had no result. He sent a certified letter to Google, begging them to associate the graphic images with searches for the accident and not with generic ones for his campground; they said there was nothing they could do.
... "We don't want to erase history, we want them [Google] to classify properly the information," Mario told me. He cited other searches, such as the one for the "MGM Grand" in Las Vegas. The hotel suffered a famous fire, but no picture or links to it appear just by searching the hotel name. Only specific searches for the tragedy bring up images of the burning building. Most of the world's accidents and terror attacks don't bring up such "horrific close-ups of people," Mario said.
After taking legal advice on the question and making no progress with Google, he finally sued the company's Spanish subsidiary in a local "court of first instance" in Spain. He didn't want any money; he wanted the images moved to other searches that he argues are more appropriate for the information. Last week, a judge threw the case out, saying that US-based Google Inc. had to be sued instead, as they were responsible for the algorithm.
The MGM Grand example seems damning at first, until you consider that it is a globally famous landmark that was the largest hotel in the world for years—and that was turned into Bally's, while the new MGM Grand Las Vegas has become an even more famous spot and is gobbling up lots of the search results.
Ars compares the situation to a few others, such as Google's "explanation page" linked from the distressing results for the query "jew", the changes Google has made to address "bomb" attacks that mocked public figures, and the suicide hotline notes they use in some countries. All those examples have key differences, though: the explanation page started as an internal Adword buy, and now exists as an organic result; Google bombs were addressed with algorithm changes, not curation; and the suicide hotline was included in their program to highlight emergency services information, just like fire and poison control phone numbers.
The fact is, sometimes bad things happen to good businesses. It's unfortunate that Masiá's business must contend with the fallout of an accident that he could not control, just as it's unfortunate when a crime scene shuts down a retail street during vital business hours, or when a "haunting" rumor forces a real estate agent to sell a house for less than its value—but bad fortune is a part of life. Google has to take an all-or-nothing stance on curation, because if they meddle with the results for one complainant, where does it end? Should a search for "Kent State" not return photos of the infamous massacre? Should a search for "Tiananmen Square" show only peaceful, touristy shots as it does in China?
Masiá is considering his next move, possibly planning to appeal the Spanish court's ruling rather than pursuing a judgement against Google in the U.S. as the first judge ruled he should. If he does, hopefully the appeals court will uphold the decision, and Masiá will realize that though he got a bum-deal, it's not Google's responsibility to fix it. But given Spain's mixed history of rulings about Google results, anything could happen.