Google suggest(s)…

The French Civil Court of Paris, throughout a judgment dated September 8, 2010 convicted Google Inc and its chief executive Eric Schmidt of defamation over results from its new “Google suggest” service.

The new function, which suggests options as you type in a word or a name, brought up the words  “rape”, “prison”, “rapist” and “Satanist” when the plaintiff’s name was typed into the search engine.

The plaintiff in that case had been convicted on appeal to a jail sentence for corruption of a minor, a conviction that was not yet definitive, when he discovered the results on entering his name in a Google search.

The court concluded that the search engine linking his name to such words was defamatory and ordered Google Inc to remove the “harmful” suggestions from the search and pay a “symbolic euro” in damages, while saying the search term suggestion function was not illegal in itself. The Court also ruled that Google had not showed its good faith in the matter and ordered it to pay 5,000 Euros towards the plaintiff’s costs and ordered Google to take measures to ensure they would be no repeat of the offense.

This case raises a common “Web 2.0” issue, which results from various technological facts. Indeed, Google Suggest service generates results depending on a subjective algorithm based on human curiosity, listing the most common terms used in the past with words entered by Internet users. In addition to this indexation, the Internet generates automatically cache memory, which prevents users from having a total control of the online content.

Then, one way to reduce damages such as online defamation could be an a posteriori human intervention in response to a prior formal notice. Its proceeding could be similar to the Internet Intermediaries’ (cf. directive No 2000/31, dated June 8, 2000 related to Electronic commerce).

This case law is not singular but has to be connected to the so-called “right to be forgotten”, recently mentioned throughout the Communication of the European Commission, dated November 4, 2010 and related to “a Comprehensive approach on personal data protection in the European Union”. The Commission awkwardly defines the “right to be forgotten” as “the right of individuals to have their data no longer processed, and deleted when [the data] are no longer needed for legitimate purposes.”

Indeed, this Google service, which cannot be considered as being technically neutral, might infringe such right, which could soon be guaranteed at a European level. Then, the main issue is probably the compatibility between Google Suggest service and the “right to be forgotten”, in light of the liberty of expression.

The judgment in full, issued on September 8, 2010 is available online:


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