May 28, 2023

A Montreal man spent years trying to hold Google accountable for search results linking to a defamatory post falsely accusing him of pedophilia that he said ruined his career. Now Google must pay $500,000 after a Quebec Supreme Court judge ruled that Google relied on an “erroneous” interpretation of Canadian law in denying the man’s requests to remove the links.

“Google variously ignored the Plaintiff, told him it could do nothing, told him it could remove the hyperlink on the Canadian version of its search engine but not the US one, but then allowed it to re-appear on the Canadian version after a 2011 judgment of the Supreme Court of Canada in an unrelated matter involving the publication of hyperlinks,” judge Azimuddin Hussain wrote in his decision issued on March 28.

Google did not immediately respond to Ars’ request to comment.

The plaintiff was granted anonymity throughout the proceedings. Google has been ordered not to disclose any identifiable information about him in connection to the case for 45 days. The tech company must also remove all links to the defamatory post in search results viewable in Quebec.

Described in the judge’s order as a “prominent businessman” in both the United States and Canada who was once at the “pinnacle of the commercial real-estate brokerage world,” the man discovered the defamatory post in April 2007 when he “Googled” himself after several clients declined to do business after a series of good meetings. He found that a website called had published the post in April 2006, falsely stating that he was a con man and “convicted of child molestation in 1984.” The founder of that website refused to remove the post—responding to emails that he never removed posts and asking the man to provide proof that he was never charged with the crime. Hussain described the website’s request as “a Kafkaesque reverse-burden demand to prove one’s innocence.”

The man then learned that it was too late to sue to have the RipOffReport post removed. In Canada, “the action must be brought within one year of its appearance, regardless of when the victim of the defamation sees the publication,” the judge’s order noted.

Unable to get the post scrubbed online, the man then turned to Google to at least make the post less discoverable. For years, Google went back and forth, sometimes complying with the requests to remove and sometimes refusing them, as the links kept resurfacing. Friends of the man testified that he had lost out on business due to the confusion when potential clients Googled his name, and one of his sons had to distance himself from his father because he worked in real estate.

After the man sued, Google first argued that under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in the US, the company was not liable for third-party content and had no obligation to remove the links. Pointing to the Canada-United States-Mexico free trade agreement, Google suggested that Quebec’s law requiring companies to remove illegal content once they’re aware of its existence wouldn’t apply, partly because it conflicted with Section 230.

Hussain didn’t buy into Google’s logic, but he also didn’t assess punitive damages because he said that Google had refused to remove the links under the “good faith belief” that it was legally allowed to ignore the man’s requests. While this particular case sided with the plaintiff, however, Hussain also said that it likely wouldn’t trigger a slew of similar cases forcing Google to remove links, writing in his order:

“This case raises unprecedented questions in Quebec law about the liability of a company like Google, which provides internet search-engine services, for making available to users of its search engine a defamatory internet post, made by a third party and appearing on the site of yet a different third party, despite being on notice that it is facilitating access to an illicit activity, namely defamatory content. However, the conclusion of the Court in the present judgment finding liability on the part of Google does not open the floodgates to defamation litigation against it or other Internet intermediaries.”

Instead of compensatory and punitive damages originally sought—amounting to $6 million—the man was awarded $500,000 for moral injuries caused after successfully arguing that he lost business deals and suffered strains on his personal relationships due to being wrongly stigmatized as a pedophile.

Hussain described the plaintiff’s experience battling Google to preserve his reputation as a “waking nightmare.” Due to Google’s refusals to remove the defamatory posts, the man “found himself helpless in a surreal and excruciating contemporary online ecosystem as he lived through a dark odyssey to have the Defamatory Post removed from public circulation,” Hussain wrote.

The plaintiff, now in his early 70s, has the option to appeal the judge’s order that Google may not release any of his identifiable information for 45 days. Ars could not immediately reach the plaintiff’s lawyers to confirm if he would be appealing.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *