There’s been a case of defamation in an Australian court where it was claimed that Google (knowingly) defamed someone by tying him to organized crime, both in organic and image search. Google was found guilty by jury, and has been ordered to pay a fine of what amounts to about 30 seconds of work for them ($200,000), but it’s not the fine that has the company a bit worried, it’s the precedent that it would be setting. Google is currently in the process of appealing the decision, we’ll all have to wait to see what happens.
The case was launched off of the search results for both organic and image listings which showed the claimant with ties to the local crime scene. Google responded that they’re not in control of the results page, that they merely list what has been observed as being popular search terms for the area. It sounds like a weak argument, but you can see how Google tracks their top trends by looking at Google Trends, you get a very brief glimpse into what the top searches were for the last day or so.
Back to why this is a bad idea however, to hold Google accountable as a publisher, and not as an information provider. The jury in this particular case decided that Google was guilty as a publisher and created the page which delivered the false information, and the images pages that are served up when you search are Google specific creations. As anyone who has any experience working with images online can tell you, there is the alt tag which can be used to give an image a text like value, which can then be indexed by the search engines. The image results page is actually the most recent target by black hat manipulators the last couple of months, not only because of this feature but it helps them get listed much quicker than pushing for listings in the center of the page.
Google being declared a publisher of the search results pages makes them accountable for the comments that came up in search, even though they never actually created the content themselves. It’s happened a handful of times that have made the news in recent years, with Rick Santorum being the most recent victim of results page manipulations by spammers and some other unscrupulous methods, but the results pages were driven by the users and by the most frequently used search terms. Blaming any search engine, not just Google for the aforementioned issue is like blaming your mechanic for your bus being late getting you to work. Once something is on the internet it’s also notoriously difficult to try and remove, ask anyone of the stars out there who have unflattering photos which pop up from time to time, once it’s online, it is forever. This also brings up the point of online brand protection, and the importance of a positive relationship in the local scene, with proper brand management mistakes like this can be captured and stopped before they begin.
The ruling sets a scary precedent in a way, as if it stands then it opens the door to an increasingly censored internet. Add into the mix that the ITU will be meeting in just a couple of weeks and the issue of net neutrality and freedom of use and access starts to become a threatened point.