Google in Fight Over Content That Appears in Search Results

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

PARIS -- Max Mosley, the former president of the International Automobile Federation, might be forgiven for wanting Google to filter certain search results.

Mr. Mosley was the victim of a spectacular 2008 sting by News of the World -- Rupert Murdoch's disgraced, and now defunct, tabloid weekly -- which posted photos and video of him participating in a sadomasochistic sex party that the paper described as "a sick Nazi orgy with hookers."

The Nazi claim, in particular, was a bitter one; the son of Sir Oswald Mosley, a pre-World War II-era British fascist, Max Mosley has long bristled at the suggestion of Nazi sympathies. He sued News of the World in a London court for breach of privacy and was awarded £60,000, or about $94,000, in damages.

The High Court ruled that there was "no evidence" that the sex party had been "intended to be an enactment of Nazi behavior or adoption of any of its attitudes." It also found that there had been "no public interest or other justification for the clandestine recording."

The court ordered News of the World to remove the material in question from its Web site, naturally, and there the story might have ended. Except, of course, that the photos and video continue to live on the Internet, via social media and on Web sites maintained by individuals. Mr. Mosley has been fighting ever since to make them disappear.

And that is where Google comes in: Mr. Mosley asked a Paris court during the past week to order the Internet giant to create an algorithm to filter all such photos from its service and search engine, now and forever. His lawyer told the court, the Tribunal de Grande Instance, that if Google France refused to remove the offending images it should face fines.

The French court said it would issue a ruling on Oct. 21. Mr. Mosley has filed a similar case in Hamburg that is to be heard this month.

Google strongly denies that it has any responsibility in the matter.

"We sympathize with Mr. Mosley's situation," Google said in a statement, noting that it had always honored his requests to remove links to material that obviously violated the High Court order. "But his proposal to filter the Web would censor legitimate speech, restrict access to information, and stifle innovation."

Google noted that there was already a solution to the problem: "Going after the actual publishers of the material, and working with Google through our existing and effective removals process."

Google says that it has already taken down "hundreds of pages" with images that obviously violate the court ruling, when Mr. Mosley has requested that it do so, but that there are many cases in which it is not immediately clear whether the content is affected by the ruling, and that in those cases a judge or other competent official should make the decision. And the company said it has never created such a filter on behalf of one person.

It cites French and E.U. law, which do not require search engines to comb the Web for unlawful content, and argues that, in any case, many hits the photos receive are driven by communications among individuals, so blocking them on search would not end the problem.

A concurrent case, at the European level, would appear to back Google, though lawyers in the case say it might not be directly relevant. The European Court of Justice, which is based in Luxembourg, is currently examining a Spanish man's claim of a "right to be forgotten" on the Web -- something Silicon Valley companies oppose.

In a sign that the case might be swinging the technology giants' way, Niilo Jaaskinen, the Finnish lawyer who serves as advocate general of the court, issued an opinion in June that search engines were not responsible "for personal data appearing on Web pages they process."

E.U. data protection law "does not entitle a person to restrict or terminate dissemination of personal data that he considers to be harmful or contrary to his interests," Mr. Jaaskinen wrote. Though the court is not bound by the advocate general's opinion, it often follows his recommendations. It has yet to decide the matter.

Why would Mr. Mosley seek action against an American company in a French court for actions committed in Britain by a now-defunct English newspaper? It might have to do with France's strict privacy laws, which make it a criminal offense to record another person -- image or sound -- in a private space without the person's consent.

His lawyer, Clara S. Zerbib, said that it was because a Paris court had ruled in 2011 that the recording of the News of the World pictures, without Mr. Mosley's knowledge in a private place, had been illegal and that a judge might thus find that distributing such pictures on the Internet was also illegal. She noted that Mr. Mosley also worked in France as president of the International Automobile Federation, the Paris-based governing body of Formula One racing, and was concerned about his reputation there.

Mr. Mosley, in a telephone interview, said that Google had been helpful, if not always swift, in answering his requests to remove photos but that he should not have to constantly ask them to do so, since the court ruling had made plain that they were illicit.

"We shouldn't have to keep asking them every time these photos come up," Mr. Mosley said. "You have to employ someone to look every day. They shouldn't put them up in the first place."

He acknowledged that by fighting Google in court, he was inevitably attracting additional attention, but that he had to do it, because "anybody who's interested in me will Google me, and the first thing they see are these photos."

Mr. Mosley and his legal team say there do not appear to be any technical barriers to Google's doing what he is asking. Google, working to address British concerns about child pornography on the Web, said in June that it had the capacity to identify and block images automatically, using "hashing" technology.

"If you have any respect for the rule of law, and it's been decided by the court that it's illegal, then you shouldn't reproduce them," he said.

But Google is adamant that the automatic filter Mr. Mosley is demanding would be a blunt tool that would indiscriminately eliminate both lawful and unlawful content, including perhaps reporting on Mr. Mosley's own case.

"We hope that the French court will not order us to build a censorship machine," the company said.

interact

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here