Court, MKs: Google responsible for preventing ‘trash talk’
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Court, MKs: Google responsible for preventing ‘trash talk’

Tel Aviv court holds Internet search giant liable for damaging a lawyer's reputation

An exterior view of the Google office in Mountain View, California. (Google office image via Shutterstock)
An exterior view of the Google office in Mountain View, California. (Google office image via Shutterstock)

A proposed law would make websites, social media platforms, and even search engines responsible to remove libelous, insulting, and racist statements and stories about specific individuals or organizations. Sponsors say the legislation will update laws that were passed fifty years ago.

Presented by Zionist Union MK Revital Swid, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved the bill for presentation to the Knesset on Monday.

In a note accompanying the bill, its eight sponsors said that the proposal would extend a recently-established legal criteria making web sites and “facilitators” that spread web data equally responsible for preserving the reputation of innocent individuals. The law would apply to web sites and search engines, as well as to social media posts and the companies providing a platform for them.

That criteria received the full backing of the Tel Aviv District Court several weeks ago, when it ruled that Google, along with the Israeli web site, court.org.il, was equally responsible for the removal or blocking of content that damaged the reputation of Israeli attorney Ami Savir, who said he suffered “for years” over damaging content posted on the court site, and over Google’s refusal to prevent others from seeing it.

For his trouble, Savir was awarded NIS 80,000 in settlement money, and NIS 20,000 in court costs – part of which is to be paid by Google.

According to Savir, the problem started in 2005, when he, representing the Israel Lawyers Association against Yoram Lioneli-Arviv, an attorney who had previously been convicted of wrongdoing, became associated with that lawyer’s wrongdoing on the Court site.

The disgraced lawyer had sued the Lawyer’s Association, and it was Savir’s job to defend the organization – which he did, successfully. The court decision was filed away, and posted online by the Court.co.il site, which takes decisions made by Israel’s judicial bodies and posts them online, without changes. In the case in question, the page documenting the court’s decision starts out with text that reads “the attorney in question has been convicted in five different cases.”

To emphasize the point, the Court site titled the page “Here is an attorney who was convicted in five cases.” Unfortunately for Savir, his name was all over the document as well.

And thanks to Google’s automated algorithms, Savir’s name came up in searches for “attorney convicted in five cases” and other similar queries. The titles of web pages are generally not visible to Web users.

Savir felt that the results portrayed him in a poor light – as if he were the attorney convicted in five different cases. By 2012, a fed up Savir asked both Court.co.il and Google – “nicely,” he said – to do something about it.

But they refused.

And Savir did what comes naturally and sued both Court and Google – the former for refusing to change the web page’s title, and the latter for allowing its algorithms associate him with the offending attorney.

Court responded that all it did was post a verbatim document, while Google claimed its algorithms simply read and indexed text on web pages.

In a decision rendered last September, the Tel Aviv Magistrates Court determined that the Court.co.il site was responsible for Savir’s woes, because it had titled the page in a manner that damaged the plaintiff.

But Savir felt he had a case against Google as well, and he appealed to the Tel Aviv District Court. – and last week Justice Avigail Cohen ruled in Savir’s favor.

“The question is not whether Google has to censor sites or information, but what its responsibility is in a situation where an individual is damaged by the contents of a web site owned by a third party,” Cohen wrote in her decision. “Does the search engine owner have a responsibility to remove the offending material from its search database? I believe it does,” she wrote, awarding Savir NIS 100,000, to be paid by both Court and Google.

Savir expressed satisfaction at the decision. “The law has not kept pace with the changes in technology and the advancement of the Internet,” he told the Times of Israel. “Often, change only comes when a breakthrough case comes to court, and the court has to rule on it in an innovative manner. In this case it took the court several years to understand that technology can cause damage to an individual’s reputation.”

According to the MKs behind the proposed legislation, the Internet and social networks are “essentially vehicles for advertising, but they are often used to hurt and insult individuals with no accounting to anyone, and without anyone taking responsibility.” The judicial criteria of “inform and remove” – as illustrated in Savir’s case – will “significantly cut down on instances of bullying and verbal violence online, and enable individuals to sue or file criminal charges against offenders.”

The law, they said, will “provide a message and clear policy not only about limiting libelous content, but provide a positive message to the public and to Israeli youth about the proper way to relate to others.”

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