Google Settles UK “Defamation” Suit, Agreeing To Remove Malicious Links

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Google has long maintained it’s not responsible for third party content in its index. And that’s the law in the US. However increasingly in Europe authorities and individuals are seeking to make Google legally responsible for the content in its search results.

The latest example comes in the form of a legal settlement in a UK defamation action. Characterized as an “exceptional” case, Google agreed to remove malicious links that damaged the reputation of UK businessman Daniel Hegglin. The settlement terms weren’t disclosed but likely involve specific actions on Google’s part to remove the defamatory material.

Google may have been motivated to settle to avoid creating case law that would have imposed further burdens or responsibilities on the company for questionable or illegal content in its index.

Google does not appear to have been directly sued for defamation. However Hegglin sued a range of unknown others for defamation and damage to his reputation. He brought Google into the case on a related theory. The plaintiff had been labeled “a murderer, paedophile and Ku Klux Klan sympathiser by an unknown internet troll.”

The settlement was reported by the BBC. Search Engine Land columnist Chris Silver Smith was retained as an expert witness for the plaintiff in the case.

Google had been cooperating with Hegglin and his attorneys and had reportedly made “significant efforts” to remove the disputed links and material. It appears that the majority or all of the defamatory material was posted anonymously.

The case did not arise under the right-to-be-forgotten but was more straightforwardly as a reputation-defamation case.

As mentioned US law doesn’t hold search engines liable for content created by third parties that appear in search results. In the US Google will remove (and does remove) content found to be defamatory after there’s been a legal process adjudicating the question.

We’ve asked Google to comment and will postscript this post if the company offers a statement.

Stepping back this case falls into a larger pattern of legal, regulatory and political moves in Europe. These include the recently established right-to-be-forgotten, newly restrictive copyright laws, the ongoing antitrust investigation and more stringent privacy rules.

All these things combine to put more pressure Google, as a range of parties and interest groups seek to control what the company can do and show in its index and increasingly try and make it responsible for third party maliciousness.

Postscript: Google provided the following statement: “We have reached a mutually acceptable agreement.”  

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