Google settles trolling case at courtroom door

Big responsibilities: Google’s immense online power makes it a constant object of scrutiny © PA

After an appalling trolling attack, Daniel Hegglin sued Google to force it to remove the online slanders. They have now reached a settlement. But will this help others in the same position?

All of us have Googled ourselves. Sometimes what we find online might be boring or embarrassing. But when Daniel Hegglin put his name in a search engine what he discovered was truly appalling. In a series of anonymous posts across the web he was branded a murderer, a paedophile and a racist.

For over three years the UK businessman has been the victim of a relentless campaign of internet abuse by an unknown troll. Nearly 4,000 websites contain this slanderous material about him and any Google search for his name will bring them up.

When he complained to Google they removed some links when alerted to them. But in his claim filed to the High Court in the UK, Hegglin said the company didn't do enough to stop the torrent of ‘vile and abusive’ material in its search results. His lawyer said he was playing ‘whack-a-mole’ with pages of savage defamation. When one disappears, another pops up.

Google agreed the material was horrendous and didn’t defend the right of a troll to abuse people. It was willing to remove links it was alerted to — and did so — but didn’t believe it was required to monitor links, actively remove malicious material or be held responsible for the actions of a troll.

This was not a so-called ‘right to be forgotten case’.Those cases centre on Google being asked to remove old reports of past behaviour which — though accurate — the subject finds embarrassing. That right was upheld in a European Court of Justice ruling in May, as long as there was no public interest in the material remaining online.

Mr Hegglin’s case is arguably about something much more important: the circulation and publication of highly abusive and false material accessible at the click of a mouse in the online world.

In addition to having the pages blocked from searches, Hegglin asked for Google to hand over the IP address of the individual publishing the anonymous posts. But in a statement, Google said it ‘has no control over what goes on these blogs at all. It’s simply providing a product’.

The settlement between Mr Hegglin and Google before the case came to court means that the issue of the legal responsibilities of search engine companies in these cases remains open.

Seek and ye shall find

Some believe that a high court ruling in Mr Hegglin’s favour would have allowed other trolling victims falsely abused online to have the offensive data removed from search engine results. The out-of-court settlement means there is still no legal protection.

Others say that the settlement should give victims hope. If they approach search engine companies in such circumstances, they will receive considerable help in dealing with false and vicious online material published about them.

You Decide

  1. Should Google do more to help victims of trolling?
  2. Can any national laws really be effective in policing the internet?

Activities

  1. Research what redress you have in law where you live if someone writes or says something untrue about you. Discuss in class whether these laws are still workable given the nature of the internet.
  2. Create a guide to staying safe online, with tips on avoiding and coping with trolling and cyber bullying.

Some People Say...

“Trolling is the price we all pay for free speech.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why doesn’t Google help victims of trolling more in these cases?
Google says it has ‘considerable sympathy’ for Mr Hegglin. However Google provides search services to hundreds of millions of people every day and believes that if it had a legal responsible for policing in advance all internet content that its search engine listed it would be impossible, financially and physically, to do its job. If people complain it will apply its procedures to assist with the removal of content which breaches applicable local laws.
Is this question now settled?
No. There are other cases due to appear in court soon which will also challenge Google to actively remove offensive content.

Word Watch

Right to be forgotten
The European Court of Justice ruled in May 2014 that Google must remove links to any content that is ‘inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant’ or face a fine. The content itself is not deleted, but Google will not list it in search results. Many worry that this is a restriction of free speech. In July the House of Lords European Union Committee published a report claiming that the Right to be Forgotten is ‘unworkable and wrong’: ‘We do not believe that individuals should have a right to have links to accurate and lawfully available information about them removed, simply because they do not like what is said’.
Help
Google’s lawyer said the company had considerable sympathy for Mr Hegglin in what is an exceptional case of internet trolling in terms of its prominence and volume.

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