Google Not Required to Vet Websites for Defamatory Content

A German court has ruled that the EU's "right to be forgotten" does not require search engines to verify sites are free from malicious content before listing them.

A sensible ruling out of Europe.

Reuters (“Google not obligated to vet websites, German court rules“):

Google (GOOGL.O) is not obligated to ensure websites are free from defamatory content before displaying links to them in search results, Germany’s highest court ruled on Tuesday.

The case, which comes in the context of debate about the so-called “right to be forgotten”, had been brought by two individuals seeking Google to prevent its search engine from displaying links to websites on which they were verbally attacked by other internet users.

They wanted Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc, to set up search filters to keep those websites from appearing in future search results, information about the users who had posted the offending comments and payment of damages, saying Google was partly responsible for the violation of their rights.

The German Federal Court of Justice said, however, that a search engine operator need only take action if it is notified of a clearly recognizable violation of individuals’ rights, rather than checking ahead of time whether the content complies with the rules.

“Instituting a general duty to inspect the content would seriously call into question the business model of search engines, which is approved by lawmakers and wanted by society,” the court said in a statement.

“Without the help of such search engines it would be impossible for individuals to get meaningful use out of the internet due to the unmanageable flood of data it contains,” it added.

In May 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) ruled that people could ask search engines, such as Google and Microsoft’s Bing (MSFT.O), to remove inadequate or irrelevant information from web results appearing under searches for people’s names – dubbed the “right to be forgotten”.

Google has since received requests for the removal of more than 2.4 million website links and accepted about 43 percent of them, according to its transparency report.

It’s amazing enough that Google is required to process massive amounts of delinking requests in order to serve customers in Europe. Indeed, the very notion that every single country on the planet can regulate the Internet and force companies not headquartered there to not only comply but be subject to litigation in their courts is crazy to me.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kit says:

    What about online gambling? Or selling drugs through the dark web? Or demanding companies crack customer encryption? Or, indeed, demanding that foreign banks outside of the US report on American clients? I’m not sure where I stand on all the issues, but crazy is not a word that I would use when countries decide that companies wishing to provide local services comply with local laws. The alternative is for governments to block these services. Are you arguing that a foreign company’s intetests (I hesitate to use the word rights) trumps a country’s sovereignty?

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Kit: I don’t think it reasonable that, to operate a website, a business should be responsible for complying with the laws of every country in which the Internet is available. Yes, that’s crazy to me.

    I’m an American. I write here primarily for an American audience. But OTB is presumably available in the PRC, Saudi Arabia, and other authoritarian states. Surely I shouldn’t be subject to their expression laws?

    No, a gambling site operating in an island where gambling is legal shouldn’t be responsible for the local laws elsewhere. If an American citizen is gambling through a site hosted elsewhere, punish the citizen. And prohibit American-based banks from processing financial transactions.

    Shipping products into another country isn’t a web-based business in my mind. But, presumably, we’ve got a set of laws for that sort of thing already on the books since brick-and-mortar companies have been doing mail order for more than a century.

  3. As I’ve noted before, the entire idea of the EU’s “right to be forgotten” is utterly absurd to begin with, especially in light of the fact that it has been used on several occasions to demand that Google remove information that is entirely accurate from its search results because it tends to paint the complainant in an unfavorable light.

    This decision, though, strikes me as being the correct way to come down on this issue. Given the size of the World Wide Web, it is quite simply absurd to expect Google or any other search information to take the time to verify the accuracy of everything it links to.

  4. Jay L Gischer says:

    I think it is possible for most countries to block a domain from their jurisdiction, so that, for instance, people in Saudi Arabia cannot see, they just get a 404 or something. That seems to me like a legitimate exercise of their sovereignty, even if somewhat ill-advised.

    I do not know this for sure, but I expect that it is because Google wants to continue to be available in Germany/the EU that it pursues these court cases and otherwise complies with the laws in those countries – the alternative is that it is blocked.

    And yes, VPN’s can tunnel through those blocks, just like they can tunnel through the Great Firewall. Government’s have tended to not care about this loophole, as it isn’t something most people are capable of managing.