U.K. court clears Google search in defamation case

Google merely facilitates access to content but isn't actually a publisher liable for it, a High Court judge rules.

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Stephen Shankland
2 min read

A court in the United Kingdom has ruled Google isn't on the hook for defamatory information in its search results, saying the company facilitates access to the information but isn't a direct publisher.

The High Court judge, David Eady, offered his conclusion Thursday in a case pitting Metropolitan International Schools, a distance learning company, against Google UK and its U.S. headquarters. The school had argued that a posting on Digital Trends forums calling one class a "scam" was defamatory, and that Google was liable too since a snippet from the forum appeared in its search results.

However, the judge found Google--the third defendant in the case--is merely a conduit to the information, not a publisher in its own right.

"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...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.

In addition, the judge drew a physical-world analogy with somebody compiling a card catalog.

If a scholar wishes to check for references to his research topic, he may well consult the library catalogue. On doing so, he may find that there are some potentially relevant books in one of the bays and make his way there to see whether he can make use of the content. It is hardly realistic to attribute responsibility for the content of those books to the compiler(s) of the catalogue.

Legal liability for search results is a complicated area. Search results can reveal unflattering or controversial descriptions of people, can make it difficult for companies to control use of their trademarks, and otherwise reveal information that individuals or organizations would prefer not be discovered. However, in cases where search results are modified, such as in China, search engines face accusations that they're screening out important information.

Update 4:52 p.m. PDT: Google was happy with the ruling. The company said in a statement:

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. Mr Justice Eady made clear that if someone feels they have been defamed by material on a Web site 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.

Via the Guardian.