A court decision in early April returned a baffling result in a defamation suit against Google Japan. If it stands, the judgment could have a domino effect on how Google works in Japan and around the world.
A Review Too Far
Click on any business in Google Maps and you’ll get a few key pieces of information: their address, contact info, and average user rating. Click on that rating and you can see reviews by other users. This functionality is the same in all versions of Google across the world; it’s an easy way to get a sense of what other customers are saying and perhaps what to expect if you patronize the business.
For many people the negative reviews are the most helpful, because they can serve as red flags. But in Japan, negative reviews can apparently be struck down in court—and count as defamation.
That was the result in the recent court case, where a doctor at a Japanese medical clinic objected to two negative reviews. The doctor supposedly treated both of the negative reviewers and claims that their comments are false. As a result, the Japanese District Court ordered Google to remove the reviews and pay a fine for defamation—based on nothing but the doctor’s word.
In fairness, the doctor submitted a sworn affidavit insisting that the claims were false. But an affidavit alone is far from proof, and many democracies would require some witnesses or evidence before declaring that a statement is defamatory. (For something to count as defamation, it must be not only disparaging but also false; negative comments are not defamation if they’re true.)
In essence, the District Court is broadcasting that swearing a review is false is enough to have that review taken down. Seems like a flimsy standard.
The problem isn’t just that a clinic with poor service is going to have clean reviews. That’s crummy for patients, but the echoes of the case are far bigger:
- The decision sets a precedent. If it stands, any Japanese business owner can purge bad reviews just by saying they’re inaccurate. That basically negates the whole point of having reviews, across one of the world’s most advanced countries.
- Charmingly, the court decreed that Google must remove the offending reviews not only from Google Japan, but from all versions of Google everywhere. Essentially, the judge is saying Japan gets to decide what info can and cannot appear in the US, Canada, Europe, or anywhere else they choose. This chillingly recalls the EU’s Right to Forget complaints, and is just as bad an idea coming from across the Pacific as it was across the Atlantic.
It’s stunning that a court in a technologically savvy nation can completely miss the point of search engines. If a country prefers to suppress critical reviews that is, sadly, their own choice to make. But Google is a truly American technology: it depends on information being shared freely without interference. All the benefits it offers users hang from that conceit. In other words: if you want the Google services to work well, you can’t start censoring the data they rely on.
Google has said it may appeal the decision, so this may not be the final word. But even if the decision stands, there are options.
In Spain, Google went for the nuclear option and suspended one of its services, refusing the play ball with overreaching courts. That put the onus on Spanish lawmakers to come up with a solution. If Google suspended Google Maps in Japan, it would generate massive pressure for a better resolution.
That’s extreme, however. Google has a much simpler option: limit local access to international versions of Google. That would mean serving only google.co.jp results in Japan, and blocking other national portals. Japanese courts wouldn’t need to regulate international search results, since those results would never appear in their jurisdiction.
The downside of both solutions is that they penalize users, reducing their access to useful services. But it will always be users who pay the price when courts limit the exchange of information. That’s exactly why this type of court decision is so backwards, but it seems to be a battle that will be fought over and over in different countries.