Google must pay man $500,000 for refusing to remove links claiming he's a pedophile
Google couldn't hide behind Section 230 this timeBy Rob Thubron 7 comments
In brief: Imagine Googling your name and discovering search results that link to an article falsely calling you a pedophile. Now imagine that Google refused to remove the links. That's the nightmare situation one Montreal businessman had to deal with for years, but now Google must pay him $500,000 for his troubles.
The "prominent businessman" in the case was granted anonymity throughout the proceedings, writes Ars Technica. He was once at the "pinnacle of the commercial real-estate brokerage world" in the US and Canada, but found that in 2006/2007, several clients declined to do business with him after a series of good meetings. In April 2007, the man discovered why: a website called RipoffReport.com had published a post in April 2006 falsely stating that he was a con man and "convicted of child molestation in 1984."
As one would normally do in this situation, the man contacted the founder of the website, asking them to remove the post. But they refused, stating that they never pulled posts and asked the man to prove he was never charged with being a pedophile. Quebec Supreme Court judge Azimuddin Hussain called the website's request a "Kafkaesque reverse-burden demand to prove one's innocence."
The ordinary course of action in this situation would be to sue the website and have the post removed, but in Canada, this can only be done within one year of its appearance, regardless of when the victim discovers the publication.
With no option to remove it, the man tried to limit its visibility by asking Google to remove links to the article. Sometimes it complied, other times it didn't, with the links re-appearing over the years. It damaged his professional life and one of his sons had to distance himself from his father as he also worked in real estate.
Hussain wrote in his March 28 decision that "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."
The man eventually sued Google, which used Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act to claim it was not liable for third-party content and wasn't under any obligation to remove the links. It said because of the Canada-United States-Mexico free trade agreement, a Quebec law requiring companies to remove illegal content once it was aware of it didn't apply due to Section 230.
Earlier this year, in a case to determine whether YouTube violates the federal Anti-Terrorism Act whenever its algorithm recommends its users videos from the terrorist group ISIS, a Google lawyer warned that the internet would be a "horror show" without Sections 230, but many argue that companies hide behind it while their platforms are spreading hate and defamatory content.
Hussain disagreed with Google's argument and found in favor of the Plaintiff. The man had originally asked for compensatory and punitive damages amounting to $6 million, but the judge said he didn't assess punitive damages because Google had refused to remove the links under the "good faith belief" that it legally didn't have to. The man, now in his early 70s, still received $500,000 for moral injuries due to lost business deals and strains on personal relationships. Maybe Google should have hired Elon Musk's lawyer.