TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: If Google Demotes Your Web Page, Can You Sue?

If Google Demotes Your Web Page, Can You Sue?

Ziff Davis (
Mon, 30 Oct 2006 17:33:25 -0600

SAN JOSE, California (Reuters) - A federal judge on Friday questioned
whether Google Inc. defamed a small company by cutting it from its Web
search ranking system or whether Google is free to choose which sites
it features.

Judge Jeremy Fogel of the U.S. District Court for the Northern
District of California heard arguments in a lawsuit by
LLC that seeks to challenge the fairness of how Google calculates the
relative popularity of Web sites.

KinderStart, a Norwalk, Connecticut-based Web parenting site that
features links to information about raising children, alleges
violations of antitrust, free speech, unfair competition and
defamation and libel laws in its suit.

Fogel said in opening comments that he was concerned attorneys for
plaintiff KinderStart had not met the legal standard for defamation at
the core of its complaint.

"I guess I am still not convinced ... that a provably false statement
has been alleged," Fogel said during a court session on whether the
suit should advance to the evidence discovery stage or be dismissed

The judge asked whether Google has a free speech right to prioritize
some sites over others in how it constructs computer formulas in its
search system. "Assuming Google is saying that KinderStart's Web site
isn't worth seeing. Why can't they say that? That's my question,"
Fogel said.

KinderStart argues the site's sudden demotion in March 2005 to a
"zero" ranking in Google's search system has severely harmed its
business. It seeks class action status on behalf of what is says are
many other sites that have suffered the same fate as Google regularly
fine-tunes its rankings.

"The fact that they (Google) have used a computer shouldn't affect
whether it is defamatory," KinderStart counsel Gregory Yu said after
the hearing.

"Using a computer to do that is a smoke screen," he said.

Fogel said he would take until at least the end of the year to render
a formal ruling on whether the case should proceed or be dismissed,
either with right of appeal or for all time.

"Judge Fogel's comments make it clear that he has read the papers very
carefully," Hilary Ware, Google's senior litigation counsel, said. "We
look forward to his ruling."

Apart from the basic way it counts the number of inbound links to any
particular Web page, Google zealously defends the secrecy of the
complex mathematical algorithms it uses to determine a site's
ranking. Earlier this year, Google went to court to protect those
trade secrets in a successful bid to limit a U.S. Justice Department
request for search data.

Google maintains that such secrecy is necessary to prevent the
manipulation of its search system to gain attention.

"This is a case that challenges Google's very right to operate,"
Google outside legal counsel David Kramer told the court. "It is not a
case about KinderStart's free speech."

Copyright 2006 Ziff Davis Inc.

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