Still Thinking about Google

By , 27 July, 2009, 1 Comment

According to a new libel ruling from the UK courts, Google can’t be sued/fined for malicious falsehoods that appear on its news and blog pages (like this one). That makes legal sense, since no one employed by Google produces the content on the sites.

But here’s the problem: it’d be awfully hard to sue/fine some of the folk with Google blogs for their output either, since most of them consider what they do to be not-quite-published, and more akin to the kind of speech covered under slander law than the kind of published text covered under libel law. Clearly, the web has erased the most obvious divide between slander and libel, but it doesn’t really erase the qualitative one. A falsehood on my friend’s travelog about her summer in Equador is just not the same as a falsehood from Robert Reich.

Moreover, the underlying logic of libel law is based on private profit. You sue the people who make/write/print the falsehoods and if you win, you take back the profits they earned by spreading the lies.

The problem with private blogs on Google’s server is not only that they don’t aspire or try to uphold fact standards that are libel-proof but also that there’s an imperfect overlap between the person who produces the content (and thus might be morally responsible for it) and the person (AKA Google) who profits from that content (and thus might be fined to avenge a wrong).

The UK ruling thus underscores the argument I have been making about Google all along–they aren’t necessarily in open defiance of the laws, but their existence, their business model demonstrates the gap between the structure of our laws and reality of the internet economy. And try as I might, I can’t think of a way to solve this without in some way cutting Google down to size.

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