Defamed on Google?

Internet defamation is a relatively new phenomenon in the personal injury world. Since the advent of the World Wide Web, people have been using the internet to publish unfathomable amounts of information. Sometimes, the content people publish on the internet may be harmful to others.

While there have been a handful of successful cases of internet defamation suits, in most cases they are extremely difficult to prove in court. In general, defamation is defined as a “false and unprivileged” statement harmful to a person’s reputation. The statement must have been made intentionally and with fault, thus suggesting negligence.

Elements of a Defamation Suit

There are several elements to consider in a defamation claim. For example, defamation cases rely on “absolute truths.” Because defamation is a false statement of fact, if the statement has an element of truth to it, it will not be considered defamatory.

For example: Jim’s blog states that a colleague was fired for sexual harassment. The colleague was indeed fired, but not because of sexual harassment. Perhaps John heard this somewhere else. Either way, because there is an element of truth, the statement is not considered wholly defamatory.

There is also a difference in specific types of defamation: libel vs. slander. Prior to the internet, anything written would be considered libel, while anything spoken would be considered slander. Today, the line is more blurred, and the focus is on the permanence of the statement. For example, instant messages are not permanent, and are more like slander, while a blog post or video is permanent and may be more akin to libel.

The Common Decency Act of 1995

The reason defamation cases are usually unsuccessful is because of the availability of multiple defenses. If the statement is true, it will not be considered defamatory. If the statement is retracted, the defamed person may receive limited or no compensation. A statute of limitations may negate the case altogether.

In cases where a defamatory statement was published or linked to a third party website, like Google, the search engine may be protected under the Communications Decency Act. This act is intended to protect internet service providers, but in some cases also protects big data sites like Google. Section 230 of the CDA states that neither a provider nor a user of a computer service can be treated as the publisher of information provided by another person or body. Basically, unless Google directly contributed content to the defamatory statement, the corporation would not likely be held liable.

While there may have been a few successful Google suits, they should be considered the exception to the rule. Generally, Google will remove any offending content should the defamed individual request it. The main reason any of these cases were successful was because Google did not remove the defamatory material in the given amount of time after the request.

Taking into account the amount of time and money that will be spent on an internet defamation case, it is probably not in your best interest to sue Google for slander or libel. Defamation cases, by nature, are complex, time consuming, and difficult to justify. Additionally, ISP’s like Google are protected under the Common Decency Act. One of the early defamation cases against Google took place in London in 2011. After an appeal, the plaintiff’s case was dismissed under the CDA, and he lost more than $40,000 paying for Google’s legal costs.