Most people look to Google for information about businesses, products, and even services. However, if someone posts defamatory, offensive, or fake content that could hurt your business, what can you do? Can you sue Google?
Google is not legally liable for any content or information posted by third parties. It cannot be held legally liable for objectionable or defamatory content posted by users. However, this immunity is not limitless.
When Can You Sue Google?
Should you decide to sue Google, be prepared for a fight as the company has a formidable legal department with hundreds of attorneys. We recommend getting in touch with an experienced consumer protection lawyer before you start your lawsuit. Some reasons why you can sue Google include:
Where Google Creates the Original Objectionable Content
Section 230 addresses the question of liability where an interactive computer service publishes or creates harmful information. If Google creates the original objectionable content, it can be held liable. In this case, Google is not immune under the Communications Decency Act and can be held liable for any defamatory content posted online.
In some circumstances, Google can also be held liable for the material alterations made to such content by other interactive computer services in addition to its creation and publishing.
For instance, if Google changed or fabricated material facts within any content during routine editing functions, it forfeits immunity under section 230 of the CDA.
It is also worth noting that Google cannot be held liable just because it refuses to remove or correct defamatory posts made by third parties.
Copyright or Trademark Infringement
You can sue Google and other interactive computer services where they directly contribute to copyright or trademark infringement and other intellectual property infringement.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act provides safe harbor provisions that protect Google. In 2010, YouTube was sued by Viacom and accused of copyright infringement by enabling users to access thousands of Viacom videos without consent.
YouTube is a Google subsidiary and Google immediately filed for protection under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. However, in 2012, it emerged that YouTube was aware of the infringement activity and the initial ruling held in Google’s favor was overturned. The parties later decided to settle.
In Rescuecom Corp. v. Google Inc Google Keyword Suggestion Tool and AdWords recommended a competitor for Rescuecom’s trademark for an AdWords purchase. However, the court did not find that the trademark was subject to “use in commerce.”
You can sue Google for trademark infringement under the Lanham Act if it subjects a company or individual trademark to “use in commerce” without permission.
Direct Business Dealings
You can also sue Google if you have direct business dealings with the company. If you have a Google account where you pay a monthly fee and Google loses the information on that account, you may be able to sue.
However, Google’s Terms of Service contain disclaimers that limit its financial liability to either $200 or total fees paid over 12 months for the service, whichever is greater. These terms also limit dispute cases to federal or state court in Santa Clara County, CA.
Exceptions to the CDA
There are also statutory exceptions in which Google can be held liable according to section 230. These exceptions are:
- Child pornography
- Sex trafficking
- Electronic Communications Privacy Act (1986)
Government Action Against Google on Behalf of Consumers
While it is difficult to sue Google and other major Tech and ICS companies, it does not mean that they are completely off the hook. The state and federal governments have and do pursue litigation against giant companies such as Google.
In 2020, Karl Racine, the District of Columbia’s attorney general, brought an action against Google to hold it accountable for violating the privacy of users and misleading them with respect to data collection.
According to the suit, Google misled consumers about the collection, storage, and use of their personal data including location and location history data. This had a major impact on consumers who used Google on Android smartphones and Chrome on Apple devices.
The Indiana, Washington State, and Texas attorneys general also filed similar actions against Google.
In an antitrust lawsuit against Google, Texas claims that Google’s monopoly power has led to willful engagement in anti-competitive conduct. Antitrust law is designed to protect consumers from firms that grow so dominant in their markets that they can force out the competition and dictate higher prices.
A 2018 study showed that Google and Facebook misled users into believing that they have control over their data while steering them into sharing information through invasive defaults.
For instance, these deceptive dark patterns are used to prompt users to share certain information such as location by claiming that certain apps will not function properly without enabling this information.
Who Can You Sue for Objectionable Content Online?
If you are unsure who is responsible for any defamatory content, sue the publisher. According to Section 230, no interactive computer service provider should be held liable for information provided by another ICS.
The person who created the offensive or objectionable content should be your primary target. Often success in your claim means having the material removed from Google and other search pages rather than compensation.
If you are currently facing defamatory reviews on Google and other search engines, sue the person behind the account that posted the reviews. In modern times, people often mask their accounts to leave nasty comments, so it may be wise to use legal means to uncover the hidden attackers.
There is no doubt that Google is a powerful organization. However, if you believe that you have grounds to sue, consult an experienced attorney who is knowledgeable about consumer protection laws. Remember, the statute of limitations limits the time you have to file your lawsuit, so the sooner you start consultations, the more time you have to prepare for your lawsuit.