A federal judge in Florida has ruled that Google must answer a complaint filed by a company whose 200+ websites were removed from the Google search results after being identified as spam. This represents a radical departure from previous legal cases, where Google was found to have protections under the first amendment that provided almost complete discretion in delisting and search engine results actions.
This complaint states that e-Ventures, a company that owns 231 websites, was notified in 2014 that their websites would be removed from Google search results, because they had been identified as ‘pure spam.’ In the end, the URLs were delisted, and were unavailable to customers conducting Google searches. E-Ventures said that this decision caused irreparable harm to their company. Additionally, when E-Ventures submitted new sites, they were rejected by Google as well because of their affiliation with E-Ventures.
E-Ventures argued that this was inconsistent with Google’s Removal Policies, and that Google’s ‘public statements about its removal policies were false, deceptive and misleading’ on eight different occasions. Google asked that the case be dismissed, as federal law 47 USC 230 (c )(2) states specifically that websites are not liable for content filtering decisions.
However, the judge sided with the plaintiff, who said that the law requires those decisions to be made ‘in good faith’, and that Google’s were not. E-Ventures argued that Google’s decision was capricious, anti-competitive, and was made to force them to purchase AdWords.
Google moved to dismiss the case, but the court sided with E-Ventures on almost every front, insisting that the lawsuit move forward and Google answer the plaintiff’s claims. The judge did not make any ruling on the validity of E-Venture’s claims.
However, the fact that the motion to dismiss the case was not granted is unprecedented. Should the case move forward, it would represent the first time that Google would be required to defend SEO results, page rank or delisting in court. When these decisions were questioned previously, cases like Zhang, Kinderstart, and Search King have held that search engines have complete discretionary power over page results and listing decisions. While complaints have previously been brought against search engines like Baidu or Google, they have been dismissed at the company’s request due to first amendment protections. The current ruling challenges that precedent.
While the validity of these claims has yet to be reviewed by a judge, should this case go against Google, it could open the company up to new liability when the search engine results change, which can negatively affect somebody every time it happens.