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Google slapped with libel claim

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Google links to more than 11.5bn web pages - and it's responsible for the content posted to every single one them. At least, Brian Retkin thinks so.

The 48-year-old Londoner has filed a defamation action against the American search giant, claiming that Google refuses to remove links to sites that libel his company, dotWORLDS. Retkin's story was first reported in The Independent, although the paper incorrectly claimed that he had "sued" the California-based outfit. He and his lawyer have issued a "pre-action protocol," threatening to sue if Google doesn't comply with their demands.

"They've removed libel about us before, but it has re-appeared on their UK website," Retkin told The Register. "We believe this leaves them open to action."

According to Retkin, anonymous third-parties have posted libel about dotWORLDS for several years, maliciously claiming that the company used the September 11 terrorist attacks to promote its domain name registration business. Since 2003, he says, Google has removed various posts to its own discussion groups at his request, but its search engine continues to turn up links to offensive third-party sites. If Google doesn't give him a written promise to permanently remove the links, he plans to sue.

Libel laws are tighter in the UK than in the U.S., and Retkin is confident that, even though Google isn't hosting the offending content, the company can be held responsible. "Google purports not to be a publisher, but there's a very fine line there," he says. "Google is presenting these third-party sites to the world. The sites they're linking to are completely obscure. You wouldn't find them if Google didn't link to them."

In the States, Retkin wouldn't have much of a case. Search engines and internet service providers are protected against this sort of defamation suit. "Here in the U.S., there are First Amendment protections that insulate them from liability," says Todd Bonder, a new media expert with the international law firm Rosenfeld, Meyer, and Susman. "If they merely link to other sites, they're protected. They're not posting. They're not publishing. They're just identifying."

In Britain, however, it's yet to been seen if a company like Google is afforded the same protection. Under the British Defamation Act 1996, a search engine can claim it was unaware of libelous material turning up on its showing in its search results, but Rektin says he has notified Google on countless occasions.

British law also makes it easier to show that published content is indeed libelous. In the U.S., the defendant must prove that the offending material in true. On the other side of the Atlantic, the plaintiff must prove that the material is false. "You don't have a First Amendment in the UK," Bonder continues. "The UK libel laws are much more problematic." But, as Bonder points out, that's only an issue in this case if Google is considered a publisher.

If the the suit is successful, it could have widespread consequences - not just for search engines but for all sorts of other internet service providers that link to third-party content. And according to Bonder, if Retkin wins a suit in the UK, he could bring it to the U.S., attempting to block content served up to UK users on Google's stateside servers.

That's exactly what Brian Retkin plans to do. "Our position is going to be that, if Google can't filter all the content that's reaching UK users, they're going to have to remove the libel in the States as well."®

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