Google lawsuits should worry the online masses

In Search Engine News by Marius Badenhorst

If you accidentally posted a letter to the wrong address, would you sue the post office? We live in a litigious society, so perhaps the more pertinent question is: could you successfully sue the post office? I’m going to stick my neck out and say that no, you couldn’t successfully sue them for a mistake that you made. One of the problems with society today, and this is when I put on my granny pants, is that no one wants to take responsibility for anything, from politicians to banks accountability has become the stuff of legend. Take, for example, the bank in Wyoming, USA that is suing Google because they sent a sensitive email to the wrong address.

The bank’s incompetence is twofold. Not only did they send the email to the wrong person, but they also attached a confidential document that wasn’t supposed to be sent anywhere. Now, it’s fair to say that a great many of us have, on occasion, wished that we could un-send an email, but so far clicking send remains irreversible. The best you can do is email the accidental recipient and apologise, and, depending on the contents, explain. This is pretty much what the bank did. A second email was sent out instructing (not requesting, thank you very much) the recipient to delete the email without opening it and to contact the bank employee concerned to “discuss his or her actions”.

Not surprisingly, there was no response, which is when the bank decided to sue Google to reveal the recipient’s identity.

The bank abdicated responsibility on several levels. First, they required action from the unwitting email recipient. Granted, it wasn’t an onerous request, it’s a simple matter to click delete and send a quick email to inform panicking parties that they needn’t panic anymore, but the manner of the request didn’t lend itself to compliance. If someone ‘instructed’ me to do something to clean up their mess, I would be inclined to tell them to stick it. Second, they made their problem Google’s.

Google is the whipping post of choice in a lot of matters online these days, but it clearly has no responsibility in this scenario.

But this is where Google’s sticky reputation acts in the bank’s favour, and gives hope to all future litigants. You see, Google recently revealed the identity of a blogger to a ticked off model so that she could sue said blogger for defamation. Liskula Cohen’s case against Google made headlines a couple of weeks ago and the verdict, which forced Google to reveal the blogger’s identity, raised the ire of much of the blogosphere, which relies heavily on Google to protect the privacy of all blogging platforms.

Without going into too many details, Cohen found a blog post that referred to her as, among other things, a skank. It’s not a nice thing to call someone (though it could have been worse) but, in my opinion, Cohen took matters a little too far. By all accounts the blog in question was small; the blogger claims that only two people saw the page: herself and Cohen. Which suggests that no action would have been the best course of action for Cohen. But models, especially those getting past their prime, are a sensitive bunch and the resulting umbrage was extreme.

The ruling is pertinent to all bloggers everywhere because the judge, Joan Madden, reckons that blogs are not a “modern day forum for conveying personal opinions, including invective and ranting”. She also rejected the defense’s claim that blogs should not be treated as factual assertions. And that means that if we so much as express an opinion that could in any way be construed as negative, we risk running foul of the law.

But I digress, the point I was heading towards is that Google obeyed the court order and revealed the blogger’s identity. She is now being sued for defamation and is in turn suing Google for breach of privacy. With regard to the bank’s case against Google, the big G has said that it won’t reveal the identity of the recipient without a court order, and if it should receive a court order, it would first have to notify the account holder to give him, or her, a chance to object to the disclosure. A comfort to Google account holders everywhere, except of course for our defamatorily-inclined blogger, who was given no such opportunity.

According to the court’s ruling in the blogger case, and Google’s subsequent actions, the bank should be successful in its application. I find this alarming. It gives corporations, who are supposed to guard our private and confidential information with more diligence than their own lives, blanket immunity against stupidity. And, if you complain about it too strongly, you’re likely to be on the receiving end of yet another lawsuit.

About the Author

Marius Badenhorst