Libel good news: Justice Eady rules in favour of Google

There was good news for people who operate search engines – and by extension for the users of search engines, which is  pretty much everyone on the internet – with a ruling last week from Justice Eady in favour of Google.

The case involved a UK training company, Metropolitan International Schools (MIS), who viewed comments made about its courses on a reviews website run by a US company as libellous. Extracts of those reviews appeared in Google search results. The full story involves a complicated set of arguments about the relative liability of that US company, Google in the US, Google in the UK and whether US firms can be sued in the UK.

However, the ruling last week was on the question of whether or not Google could be liable for the snippets of web pages which appear in its search results, particularly after receiving correspondence that MIS viewed them as libellous.

As reports:

“The appropriate question here, perhaps, is whether [Google Inc.] should be regarded as a mere facilitator in respect of the publication of the ‘snippet’ and whether, in particular, that would remain a proper interpretation even after the date of notification,” wrote Mr Justice Eady.

He concluded that Google was a mere facilitator. The Bunt case, also heard by Mr Justice Eady’s, confirmed that mere facilitators, like telephone carriers, are generally not liable for defamatory content.

Mr Justice Eady also referred to a 19th century case, Emmens v Pottle, which said that handing someone a newspaper that contained a libel could only incur liability if the distributor knew of that libellous content.

The court said that Google could not prevent the snippet appearing in response to a user’s search request unless it had taken some positive step in advance. He said that Google cannot be characterised as a publisher at common law if it has taken no such steps.

“It has not authorised or caused the snippet to appear on the user’s screen in any meaningful sense,” wrote Mr Justice Eady. “It has merely, by the provision of its search service, played the role of a facilitator.”…

He noted that, in this case, Google had taken steps to ensure that certain identified URLs were blocked. “I am told that [Google Inc.] 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,” wrote Mr Justice Eady.

“It may well be that [Google Inc.’s] ‘notice and take down’ procedure has not operated as rapidly as [MIS] would wish, but it does not follow as a matter of law that between notification and ‘take down’ [Google] becomes or remains liable as a publisher of the offending material,” he wrote. “While efforts are being made to achieve a ‘take down’ in relation to a particular URL, it is hardly possible to fix [Google Inc.] with liability on the basis of authorisation, approval or acquiescence.”

MIS sought an injunction to prevent the display in search results of anything that suggests it is involved in a scam, without the need to provide Google with the location of the materials in question…

A Google spokesperson told OUT-LAW: “We are pleased with this result, which reinforces the principle that search engines aren’t responsible for content that is published on third party websites.”

“Justice Eady made clear if someone feels they have been defamed by material on a website then they should address their complaint to the person who actually wrote and published the material, and not a search engine, which simply provides a searchable index of content on the Internet,” he said.

As Google says, Justice Eady’s ruling gives some degree of protection to those running search engines, and by implication to those linking to content in other automated ways (such as the republishing of an RSS feed).

That’s good news for freedom of speech and the operation of the internet. As with his rulings in the Lewisham and Henley libel cases over what can be said in leaflets during election campaigns, Eady has shown a willingness to protect freedom of speech. In the Lewisham and Henley cases he gave a very wide scope for comments, allegations and arguments to be put in leaflets without incurring a legal liability.

It’s true also that critics of his have argued that he has been unwilling to prioritise freedom of speech in other cases (such as the Simon Singh case), which makes for a curious mixed picture. The fact that Justice Eady’s rulings don’t neatly fall into one pigeon hole perhaps reflects that he takes each individual case on its legal merit within the current state of legislation (indeed, his rulings have a very high survival rate when appealed against) yet also that the state of libel law as drawn up by Parliament leaves rather a mess for judges to interpret.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All comments and data you submit with them will be handled in line with the privacy and moderation policies.