Friday, July 24, 2009

Google not liable for defamation in serach results

Mr Justice Eady in the UK High Court has ruled that Google can't be held liable for defamatory comments found in search results produced by the company's search engine.

    My conclusions on publication

  1. I turn to what seems to me to be the central point in the present application; namely, whether the Third Defendant is to be regarded as a publisher of the words complained of at all. The matter is so far undecided in any judicial authority and the statutory wording of the 1996 Act does nothing to assist. It is necessary to see how the relatively recent concept of a search engine can be made to fit into the traditional legal framework (unless and until specific legislation is introduced in this jurisdiction).
  2. It has been recognised, at common law, that for a person to be fixed with responsibility for publishing defamatory words, there needs to be present a mental element. I summarised the position in Bunt v Tilley at [21]-[23]:
  3. "21. In determining responsibility for publication in the context of the law of defamation, it seems to me to be important to focus on what the person did, or failed to do, in the chain of communication. It is clear that the state of a defendant's knowledge can be an important factor. If a person knowingly permits another to communicate information which is defamatory, when there would be an opportunity to prevent the publication, there would seem to be no reason in principle why liability should not accrue. So too, if the true position were that the applicants had been (in the claimant's words) responsible for 'corporate sponsorship and approval of their illegal activities'.
    22. I have little doubt, however, that to impose legal responsibility upon anyone under the common law for the publication of words it is essential to demonstrate a degree of awareness or at least an assumption of general responsibility, such as has long been recognised in the context of editorial responsibility. As Lord Morris commented in McLeod v St Aubyn [1899] AC 549, 562: 'A printer and publisher intends to publish, and so intending cannot plead as a justification that he did not know the contents. The appellant in this case never intended to publish'. In that case the relevant publication consisted in handing over an unread copy of a newspaper for return the following day. It was held that there was no sufficient degree of awareness or intention to impose legal responsibility for that 'publication'.
    23. Of course, to be liable for a defamatory publication it is not always necessary to be aware of the defamatory content, still less of its legal significance. Editors and publishers are often fixed with responsibility notwithstanding such lack of knowledge. On the other hand, for a person to be held responsible there must be knowing involvement in the process of publication of the relevant words. It is not enough that a person merely plays a passive instrumental role in the process. (See also in this context Emmens v Pottle (1885) 16 QBD 354, 357, per Lord Esher MR.)"

    The passage to which I referred in Emmens v Pottle concerned defendants who were said by the Master of the Rolls to have been prima facie liable, on the basis that they had handed to other people the newspaper in which there was a libel on the plaintiff...

  4. When a search is carried out by a web user via the Google search engine it is clear, from what I have said already about its function, that there is no human input from the Third Defendant. None of its officers or employees takes any part in the search. It is performed automatically in accordance with computer programmes.
  5. When a snippet is thrown up on the user's screen in response to his search, it points him in the direction of an entry somewhere on the Web that corresponds, to a greater or lesser extent, to the search terms he has typed in. It is for him to access or not, as he chooses. It is fundamentally important to have in mind that the Third Defendant has no role to play in formulating the search terms. Accordingly, it could not prevent the snippet appearing in response to the user's request unless it has taken some positive step in advance. There being no input from the Third Defendant, therefore, on the scenario I have so far posited, it cannot be characterised as a publisher at common law. It has not authorised or caused the snippet to appear on the user's screen in any meaningful sense. It has merely, by the provision of its search service, played the role of a facilitator.
  6. The next question is whether the legal position is, or should be, any different once the Third Defendant has been informed of the defamatory content of a "snippet" thrown up by the search engine. In the circumstances before Morland J, in Godfrey v Demon Internet, the acquisition of knowledge was clearly regarded as critical. That is largely because the law recognises that a person can become liable for the publication of a libel by acquiescence; that is to say, by permitting publication to continue when he or she has the power to prevent it. As I have said, someone hosting a website will generally be able to remove material that is legally objectionable. If this is not done, then there may be liability on the basis of authorisation or acquiescence.
  7. A search engine, however, is a different kind of Internet intermediary. It is not possible to draw a complete analogy with a website host. One cannot merely press a button to ensure that the offending words will never reappear on a Google search snippet: there is no control over the search terms typed in by future users. If the words are thrown up in response to a future search, it would by no means follow that the Third Defendant has authorised or acquiesced in that process.
  8. There are some steps that the Third Defendant can take and they have been explored in evidence in the context of what has been described as its "take down" policy. There is a degree of international recognition that the operators of search engines should put in place such a system (which could obviously either be on a voluntary basis or put upon a statutory footing) to take account of legitimate complaints about legally objectionable material. It is by no means easy to arrive at an overall conclusion that is satisfactory from all points of view. In particular, the material may be objectionable under the domestic law of one jurisdiction while being regarded as legitimate in others.
  9. In this case, the evidence shows that Google has taken steps to ensure that certain identified URLs are blocked, in the sense that when web-crawling takes place, the content of such URLs will not be displayed in response to Google searches carried out on This has now happened in relation to the "scam" material on many occasions. But I am told that the Third Defendant needs to have specific URLs identified and is not in a position to put in place a more effective block on the specific words complained of without, at the same time, blocking a huge amount of other material which might contain some of the individual words comprising the offending snippet.
  10. It may well be that the Third Defendant's "notice and take down" procedure has not operated as rapidly as Mr Browne and his client would wish, but it does not follow as a matter of law that between notification and "take down" the Third Defendant becomes or remains liable as a publisher of the offending material. While efforts are being made to achieve a "take down" in relation a particular URL, it is hardly possible to fix the Third Defendant with liability on the basis of authorisation, approval or acquiescence...
  11. Against this background, including the steps so far taken by the Third Defendant to block the identified URLs, I believe it is unrealistic to attribute responsibility for publication to the Third Defendant, whether on the basis of authorship or acquiescence. There is no doubt room for debate as to what further blocking steps it would be open for it to take, or how effective they might be, but that does not seem to me to affect my overall conclusion on liability. This decision is quite independent of any defence provided by s.1(1) of the 1996 Act, since if a person is not properly to be categorised as the publisher at common law, there is no need of a defence: see e.g. Bunt v Tilley at [37].
  12. The ultimate outcome

  13. In conclusion, therefore, there are two reasons which in my judgment justify setting aside the Master's order. First, I do not consider that on the evidence before me the Third Defendant can be regarded as a publisher of the words complained of, whether before or after notification. Accordingly, on the evidence before me, I can conclude that the Claimant would have "no reasonable prospect of success". Secondly, I regard the misrepresentations and omissions, as to the nature of the cause of action relied upon, as sufficiently serious to justify setting aside the Master's order in any event."

Really interesting case. For those allergic to legalise, the Guardian has a report on the outcome.

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