When the two sides in a conflict are corporate colossus Google vs. the government, it’s hard to know which side to back.

But I was relieved to learn that a ruling by a provincial Canadian court that ordered Google to block sites worldwide, in a trade dispute was overturned. Briefly, Google was held not to be a “publisher” of defamatory material simply because it appeared on websites its search engines can reach:

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lauri Ann Fenlon concluded that Google is a “passive instrument” because the search results are produced by “web-crawling robots” without human intervention by anyone at Google, so it is does not actually publish the snippets of defamatory written material.

Google submitted that its search results are generated by an algorithm based on the words being searched that automatically review more than 60 trillion websites.

The reason I am relieved is that Google would not be the only agent affected. Any blogger who linked to a website held to contain defamatory material—whether the blogger knew the fact or not—could be at risk.

Defamation law in the internet age is in dire need of reform. Consider this case, also from Canada,

What started as a joke on social media has become no laughing matter in court, as a prominent Newfoundland fitness trainer is suing a man he believes is behind social media parody accounts.

King is now asking a Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court judge to issue court orders forcing Twitter and Facebook — along with internet service providers Rogers and Bell Aliant — to hand over data that could unmask his online tormentor.

But the subject of the ongoing defamation suit swears he is not Fake Rob King, and is fighting the request.

Some of the companies involved have also expressed concern about handing over data.

As well they should be. Obviously, this sort of thing was not happening a century ago, but the law has hardly begun to catch up with the new realities.

Another issue is accusations of blasphemy, where we now find:

Some religious people believe it’s their obligation to protest images of God, the Prophet or other religious figures. Piss Christ has been repeatedly slashed, the massive Bamiyam Buddhas in Afghanistan have been dynamited, and Charlie Hebdo staff were murdered.

It is a good question whether laws against blasphemy do more harm than good today because there is no longer general agreement about what blasphemy even is.

Meanwhile, in another defamation case in Hong Kong, a prominent billionaire is suing Google over autocomplete, that system that completes search strings on has used before:

 

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Avatar

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...