Google not liable for Google Suggest results, says court
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In Groupe JPL - CNFDI v S (July 10 2009), the Court of First Instance of Paris has ruled that Google could not be held liable for the fact that the plaintiff’s name was associated with the word 'rip-off' in the Google Suggest tool.
Groupe JPL - CNFDI filed suit against Eric S, director of publication of the 'google.fr' website, and US company Google Inc (collectively 'Google'), claiming that users searching for the term 'CNFDI' on the Google search engine were given the suggestion 'CNFDI arnaque' (French for 'CNFDI rip-off') by the Google Suggest tool. This tool completes search terms as users type them into the search box and offers similar searches. CNFDI considered that this suggestion constituted an affront and requested that the court order its removal.
In its defence, Google raised arguments that it had already used in proceedings involving the AdWords system. Google argued that Google Suggest was a "statistical, automatic and objective function of its search engine". Therefore, Google could not be held liable for the suggested searches as there was no intervention on its part. Google also relied on the freedom of speech and right of information, arguing that the suggested results objectively reflected the most frequent searches by internet users. With regard to the claim that the suggestion represented an 'affront', Google submitted that the 'guilty intent' required by French practice was absent in this case.
According to the court, Google had a certain level of control over its Google Suggest tool. The management of the corresponding database (which contains the most frequent searches) remained in Google's hands, as it voluntarily excluded certain terms from the searches (eg, pornographic or violent terms) and expressly invited users to report queries which they believed to be offensive.
However, the court considered that the addition of the word 'arnaque' to CNFDI's name was not in itself an affront. The court pointed out that the suggestion at issue relied on previous searches performed by internet users and that evidence to that effect had been submitted by Google. The court concluded that the Google Suggest tool contributed to the freedom of speech and information, and was thus protected under the law of July 29 1881 on the freedom of the press.
This is the second time that a French court has ruled in proceedings involving the Google Suggest tool. On May 7 2009 the Paris Trade Court had held that Google was liable for the fact that the plaintiff's name was associated with the word 'arnaque' in its suggestions tool. However, the grounds of action and the circumstances of the case were different. In that case, the plaintiff relied on the principle of civil responsibility, and the word 'arnaque' was not the most frequent keyword entered by internet users.
The case law on Google's liability with regard to its Google Suggest tool is still in the very early stages. Further decisions are thus eagerly awaited.
Franck Soutoul and Jean-Philippe Bresson, INLEX IP EXPERTISE, Paris
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