What happens when you drag Google into a spurious lawsuit? At least in Europe, the world’s most powerful search giant rolls over and gives in.
That’s more or less what happened last month, when Google decided not to fight an anti-defamation suit, instead opting to settle out of court and, effectively, to alter its search results for a single European billionaire.
The case was brought forward in the UK by businessman Daniel Hegglin, suing several supposed slanderers over online defamation. (For the record, the slanderers claimed that Hegglin is “a murderer, paedophile and Ku Klux Klan sympathizer…”) The hateful language seems to come from an anonymous internet troll, meaning the defendants named in Hegglin’s case were likely websites that wouldn’t take down the comments.
Interestingly, Google wasn’t even one of the defendants; it was pulled in because the allegedly defamatory comments appeared in search results. In the US this wouldn’t matter: search engines aren’t responsible for the accuracy of what they index (which makes sense, as they’re simply directory, not a media source). But Europe has been increasingly strict on what Google can index, and is more likely to hold search engines accountable.
That makes it sound an awful lot like Google settled to avoid a doomed court battle—which is exactly what many pundits are saying. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Had Google fought the suit, there’s a very good chance they’d win.
That’s because defamation charges, in Europe and the US alike, are notoriously hard to prove. The standard on both continents is that the defamatory statements are untrue. It’s up the plaintiff—in this case, Hegglin—to prove that the rumors against them are undeniably false. Not an easy standard to meet.
So Google and the plaintiffs had a good chance to walk away from the lawsuit as victors. Why then would a giant corporation and its legal team opt to settle?
Our guess is the sweeping implications of a potential loss, however unlikely. On the off chance that Hegglin could prove he never committed pedophilia, there’s a good chance the UK court would have ordered Google to take down the results—in an official judgment. That would set a precedent that search engines are liable for untrue information indexed by their robots. And that would be a disaster.
No one involved has disclosed the terms of the settlement (Google’s official statement was only, “We have reached a mutually acceptable agreement”). But it likely involves only de-indexing the objectionable content and perhaps paying a share of Hegglin’s legal fees. Compared to giving European judges a license to regulate search results, that seems like a small price to pay.
Perhaps the strangest thing about Hegglin’s case is that he didn’t simply make his request through Google’s “Right to Be Forgotten” system, which was made law in Europe earlier this year. But that system gives Google some leeway in determining whether content really is false or irrelevant. Clearly Hegglin decided to take a more direct approach.
For now at least, the settlement only sets a much vaguer precedent: that in Europe, if you want to be de-indexed you need to be extremely rich.
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