What if you opened up your browser, surfed over to Google.com, and while you were typing in your name into the Google search box, the words “rapist”, “satanist”, and “prison” were produced as suggestions? You might laugh off the error, but what if you are somebody whose reputation and/or business is affected by people searching your name online? In today’s day and age, that accounts for practically everybody.
Upon finding the 3 potentially damaging words appear as suggestions during the search, you must first decide if in fact there has been a false statement of fact. Is a mere suggestion based on some search algorithm a false statement of fact, or worse, do you deserve the word association? A plaintiff in a real case recently decided in a Paris, France court had been convicted on appeal to a 3 year jail sentence for corruption of a minor, but the conviction was not yet definitive. The 2 aforementioned words showed up when the plaintiff did a search of his name, and he sued Google and Eric Schmidt (Google’s CEO) for defamation.
A statement must be provable as false before there can be liability. Can it be proven that the plaintiff is not a rapist and/or a satanist? The sentence for “corruption of a minor” does not give me enough information as to whether rape was in any way an element of the offense.
Are Google search suggestions statements of facts or are they opinions based on a mathematical formula which produces results based on the most common terms used in the past with the words that were entered? Does it matter that a computer is formulating the results instead of a person who has the ability to use thought before placing the potential suggestions?
Google was found guilty and had to pay a nominal reward (of 1 euro) to the plaintiff. Google is not appealing because of the minuscule damages it would have to pay, but because of the precedent this decision would create for future courts to look at when deciding similar matters. Future cases could involve much more dramatic awards for the plaintiffs.
If you have a translating plugin on your browser, go ahead and view the opinion of the Paris court.