Patterico's Pontifications


How Google Helps To Fuel Libel Litigation Over Internet Web Postings

Filed under: Blogging Matters,Law — Justin Levine @ 6:42 pm

[posted by Justin Levine] 

Jack Shafer has posted a thoughtful response to this column by New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt regarding the problems created by Internet search engines which can preserve unflattering news coverage about you (including matters that may be either true or untrue).

One key observation by Shafer –

One of the flaws in Hoyt’s thinking is his belief that one’s reputation is a possession—like a car or a tennis racket—when one’s reputation actually resides in the minds of others. A person can have as many reputations as people who know him or know of him. Positing that the top link in a Google search of a name equals somebody’s reputation is silly, and Hoyt’s column only encourages that notion.

Whether or not you tend to agree with Shafer’s position, I can tell you that Google is definitely driving much of the libel litigation stemming from Internet content in recent years. Many people won’t care if you print smack about them on some obscure niche website. But if that same website suddenly manages to hit on the first page under a Google search of a person’s name, that person is far more likely to try and take action against you in order to make you remove the content.

Naturally, there are a number of unwise plaintiffs who still sue over obscure websites with small niche audiences. Some such lawsuits then get attention by others in the blogosphere which paradoxically boosts their Google profile – making their situation far worse based on what they wanted to accomplish in the first place. But I suspect that class of potential libel plaintiffs are becoming an ever increasing minority. [Perhaps I merely hope it?].

But to illustrate my main point: One my past legal cases of blogger libel defense involved Google rankings as a key component in negotiations. Confidentiality agreements regrettably prevent me from going into too much detail here. However, I can state that part of the eventual settlement agreement involved allowing the website content to remain up, provided that the author went back and deliberately changed the spelling of the plaintiff’s name in the blog post such that it would eventually bypass the radar of Google and other major search engines. It wouldn’t surprise me to see this sort of thing applied more often in future cases.

[Update: “Schafer” corrected to “Shafer”. Who needs editors or spell check programs when you have helpful commentators instead?]

3 Responses to “How Google Helps To Fuel Libel Litigation Over Internet Web Postings”

  1. Minor correction: It’s “Shafer”, not “Schafer”. (Unless you intended that deliberately, as an ironic comment on the controversy.)

    Jim Miller (6149e2)

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