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Don Burleson Blog 








Will search engines remove “bad” content?

Patricia Cornwell recently won a libel action against a man who showed “actual malice” in publishing damaging statements that hurt Ms. Cornwell’s good name.  Armed with a court order to have the libel removed, the next question is all about enforcement of US court orders in a worldwide jurisdiction. 

Many of the search engines have mottos like “do no evil”, and they fully cooperate with law enforcement, including valid court orders.  But the more pressing issue is how search engines will respond to the varying laws of over 190 countries?

Since the bad guy has fled the country, can Cornwell get the search engines to obfuscate the proven libel against her?  The perp, a Harvard man, has allegedly fled the USA to escape his punishment for libeling Patricia Cornwell:

“Sachs, 52, grew up in Chicago, and graduated from Harvard in 1975. He did not attend a hearing on Cornwell's motion last month and was not represented by counsel.

Court papers listed his last US residence as Woodbridge, Virginia, but he has called himself a "political refugee" who moved to Europe in 2004 to escape Cornwell's legal actions.”

Many courts have found that hyperlinking to a libel is repeating a libel, and search engines, by virtue of their ability to store and publicize content, should be subject to the laws of the countries where they are seen.  The act of “bombing” (someone publishes a defamatory statement while conspirators hyperlink to it to make it come-up on web searches), is exactly the same repeating a traditional libel, where simply pointing to a page contributes to the defamation.  This is established case law dating back over 100 years:

Hird v Wood (1894) - This case held that evidence that a person sat by a defamatory placard beside a roadway, and pointed to it whenever others passed, was sufficient to constitute publication of defamatory material on the placard.

Cornwell plans to ask the search engines to stop repeating the libel against her:

“It is not clear how the judge's order can be enforced abroad or on the internet.

But Cornwell's lawyers intend to take the judge's order to internet service providers and search engines, and ask them to put up a link, so searches that turn up Sachs's allegations will lead to the court order that found them to be false.”

Bloggers are now being considered journalists and they now have the same fact-checking requirements as any other publisher, so ignorance of the law is not an excuse.  We see this reflected in mainstream publishing where blogger Insurance now required for any responsible publisher. See this 2003 Cyberlibel case where "an intermediate California Appellate court holds that the Communications Decency Act ("CDA") does not immunize a user of interactive computer services from a defamation claim arising out of her republication of statements authored by a third party, when the user knew or had reason to know of the falsity of those statements."

The Internet is not above the law, and all search engines are required to cooperate with lawful court orders and respect copyright, libel and defamation laws.  It will be interesting to see if Patricia Cornwell will get the search engines to remove the libelous content.




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