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Google-hating Aussie watchdog smacked by confused judge

Sponsored-links attack 'incomprehensible'

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After accusing Google of misleading web users with its money-making sponsored links, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has been accused of saying things that don't make sense.

The ACCC showed up in Australian federal court yesterday, two months after bringing legal action against Google, and Judge James Allsop told the consumer watchdog that its court documents were almost "incomprehensible," "opaque," and "somewhat repetitious," The Australian reports. He then asked the ACCC to clarify its position with new documents, planning to revisit the matter next month.

In July, the commission kicked off legal proceedings against Google, two of its subsidiaries, and an Australian classifieds site called Trading Post, alleging "misleading and deceptive conduct in relation to sponsored links that appeared on the Google website." The ACCC claims that the search giant fails to properly distinguish between "organic" search results and advertising results, and it's annoyed that Trading Post was able to attract customers using sponsored links that included the names of two independent car dealerships, Kloster Ford and Charlestown Toyota.

In accusing Google of violating Australia's Trade Practices Act, the ACCC is sure that it's the first organization on earth to legally question the distinction between search results that are paid for and those that are not. In the U.S., close to a dozen companies have brought suit against Google for allowing competitors to piggy-back sponsored links on their trademarks, including American Airlines, but in recent years, there's been relatively little controversy over the way sponsored links are presented.

In 2001, an organization led by uber-consumer-advocate Ralph Nader complained to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission about deceptive sponsored links, and a year later, the FTC fired off a letter to the country's search engines, insisting they clearly separate paid search from unpaid. "Search engine practices weren't terrible at the time of the FTC letter, and they're better now than they were in 2002," Santa Clara University law professor and tech law blogger Eric Goldman told The Reg. "In terms of confusion between ads and search results, we really haven't seen much stress about that."

You could also argue that Google was clearly marking its sponsored links well before the rest of the market. "Google's practices were always better than the prevailing state of the art," Goldman continued. On Google's main search page, sponsored links appear in a tinted box tagged with the words "Sponsored Links," and they look much the same on sites run by Google Ireland and Google Australia, the two subsidiaries the ACCC is complaining about.

Of course, anyone who visits Google after fifteen years stranded on a desert island may not understand the term "sponsored link." "You can always do more to make it clearer that these are ads and not search results," Goldman said. "Does the term sponsored link communicate 'ad' - or does it communicate something else?"

When we contacted Google, it gave us a predictable response to the news from Australia. "From the outset, we have stated this case is wrongly based and we're now making our arguments to the Court," said spokesman Rob Shilkin. "Our focus is on delivering relevant information to Australian users and helping Australian businesses enjoy the benefits of search marketing."

After the initial response from Judge Allsop, it doesn't look like the company has all that much to worry about. ®

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