Google and its chief executive Eric Schmidt have been convicted of defamation in France in a decision that, in my view, defies logic and legal principles. The company was convicted due to the results of its “suggest” function which lists words commonly used by users. In this case, the plaintiffs’ name produced automatic suggested words of “rapist” and “satanist.”
I have long been a critic of European defamation laws (here and here and here and here) as setting too low a standard for plaintiffs. This case, however, shows both a lack of understanding of such functions as well as the dangers of low defamation standards to free speech. Previously, Google was hit with a defamation lawsuit in Italy.
Fortunately, Google will appeal this ill-conceived decision. In the interim, as I prepare to go to Paris next month for a speech, I will have to remove all of the adjectives out of the text.
If you read French, here is the decision.
I do not read French, but on its face I find the decision to be nonsensical and maddening. The lawsuit is protecting the plaintiffs not from defamatory statements from Google but the collective association of users. Part of the transformative role of the Internet is the use of such functions to combine searches and information from users. In the United States, Congress and the courts have moved to protect such companies from defamation. In some cases, they have gone too far in my view, but this case shows the danger of the opposite trend among our European cousins. Of course the ultimate revenge is that now, when you type in France, “runaway courts” and “Internet-challenged” will come up on the suggest function.