Last summer, a Florida federal court reached some unusual conclusions in a lawsuit filed by SEO company e-ventures, which felt Google had overstepped its bounds in delisting a lot of its links. Google defended itself, citing both Section 230 and the First Amendment. The court disagreed with both arguments.
As to Section 230, the court found that Google’s delisting efforts weren’t in “good faith.” The reason cited was e-ventures’ claim that the delisting was in “bad faith.” So much for this seldom-used aspect of Section 230: the “Good Samaritan” clause which states no third-party company can be found liable for actions it takes to remove content it finds questionable. And so much for “viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” Apparently, Google’s long history of spam-fighting efforts is nothing compared to an SEO wrangler’s pained assertions.
The court also said Google had no First Amendment right to handle its search rankings however it saw fit, which is more than a little problematic. While it admitted Google’s search rankings were protected speech, its statements about how it handled search engines weren’t. And, for some reason, the court felt that Google’s ads undermined its First Amendment protections because its desire to turn a profit somehow nullified its “editorial judgment.”
It was a strange decision and one that suggested this court might be considering getting into the business of telling service providers how to run their businesses. It also suggested this court believed the more successful the business was, the fewer rights and protections it had. These dubious conclusions prevented Google from having the case dismissed.
Fortunately, this wasn’t the final decision. As Eric Goldman points out, last year’s denial only delayed the inevitable. After a few more rounds of arguments and legal paperwork, Google has prevailed. But there’s not much to celebrate in this decision as the court has (again) decided to route around Google’s Section 230 “Good Samaritan” defense.
Regarding 230(c)(2), the court says “spam” can qualify as “harassing” or “objectionable” content (cite to e360insight with a but-see to the Song Fi case). Still, the court says e-ventures “brought forward enough circumstantial evidence” about Google’s motivations to send the case to a trial. By making it so Google can’t even win on summary judgment, rulings like this just reinforce how Section 230(c)(2) is a useless safe harbor.
Had it ended there, Google would be still be facing e-ventures’ claims. But it didn’t. The court takes another look at Google’s First Amendment claims and finds that the search engine provider does actually have the right to remove “spammy” links. Beyond that, it finds Google even has the First Amendment right to remove competitors’ content. From the order [PDF]:
“[T]he First Amendment protects as speech the results produced by an Internet search engine.” Zhang v. Baidu.com, Inc., 10 F. Supp. 3d 433, 435 (S.D.N.Y. 2014). A search engine is akin to a publisher, whose judgments about what to publish and what not to publish are absolutely protected by the First Amendment. See Miami Herald Publ’g Co. v. Tornillo, 418 U.S. 241, 258 (1974) (“The choice of material to go into a newspaper . . .—whether fair or unfair—constitute[s] the exercise of editorial control and judgment” that the First Amendment protects.) The presumption that editorial judgments, no matter the motive, are protected expression is too high a bar for e-ventures to overcome.
And the court walks back its earlier conclusion — the one that seemed to find profit-motivated “editorial judgment” to be unworthy of First Amendment protections.
Google’s actions in formulating rankings for its search engine and in determining whether certain websites are contrary to Google’s guidelines and thereby subject to removal are the same as decisions by a newspaper editor regarding which content to publish, which article belongs on the front page, and which article is unworthy of publication. The First Amendment protects these decisions, whether they are fair or unfair, or motivated by profit or altruism.
The case is now dismissed with prejudice which bars e-ventures from complaining about Google’s delisting efforts in federal court. e-ventures has gone this far already in hopes of seeing its terms-violating content reinstated, so it will likely attempt to appeal this decision. But it really shouldn’t. It’s unlikely another set of judges will help it clear the First Amendment hurdle. Not only that, but this area of law should be well-settled by now, as Goldman points out:
Of course Google can de-index sites it thinks are spam. It’s hard to believe we’re still litigating that issue in 2017; these issues were explored in suits like SearchKing and KinderStart from over a decade ago.
The plaintiff was given a long leash by the court, which should have tossed last year. Even with the extra time and the court doings its Section 230 circumvention work for it, e-ventures still couldn’t prevail.
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