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Website liable for Google-generated page summary

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A Dutch website has been sued — and sued successfully — for the way Google summarized one of its pages.

As reported by De Telegraaf and the Dutch blog 24 Oranges, a judge has ruled that the website Miljoenhuizen.nl is liable for a Google-generated page description, or “snippet”, that may or may not give the false impression that a local BMW dealer has gone bankrupt.

The car dealer is called Zwartepoorte. At one point, the company noticed that when you searched on the keywords “Zwartepoorte” and “bankrupt”, Google turned up a Miljoenhuizen.nl link and summarized it with the following snippet (translated into English):

Complete name: Zwartepoorte Specialiteit: BMW…This company has been declared bankrupt, it has been acquired by the motordealer I have worked for Boat Rialto…

According to Zwartepoorte, this snippet indicated it had gone bankrupt. But it hadn’t gone bankrupt. So it sued Miljoenhuizen.nl. Not Google. Which is not to say that Google suing would have been any more rational.

To create the snippet, Google algorithms pulled both the “Zwartepoorte” bit and the “bankrupt” bit from the Miljoenhuizen.nl page. But they weren’t side-by-side on the page — as the ellipses indicate. That’s often how Google does things. If you Google two separate words, it shows you that each search result contains both of them.

But the judge has ordered Miljoenhuizen.nl to change its website so that the snippet does not appear. Apparently, the company has done so by taking the page down.

In a preliminary ruling, detailed here by Dutch law student Joris van Hoboken, Judge Sj A Rullman found in favour of Zwartepoorte because some Google users did indeed think the company had gone bankrupt, because the company had asked Miljoenhuizen.nl to correct the problem, and because Miljoenhuizen.nl had somehow, at some time in the past, attempted to optimize its Google search ranking.

According to the court, it would be rather easy for Miljoenhuizen.nl to edit its site so that something else turned up in the snippet. This may be because Miljoenhuizen.nl said as much during the court case — before retracting its words in statements to the press.

“The Court argues that it might be true that the website had no control over the functioning of Google but suggests that these questions about the opacity of Google’s functioning should be addressed in a broader context… then concludes that defendant had its own responsibility,” says van Hoboken, a PhD candidate at the Institute for Information Law at the University of Amsterdam.

But he doesn’t quite agree with the ruling. “To make websites liable for the impact of legal publications in search engines on unreasonable end-users is a step too far,” he writes.

Presumably, Miljoenhuizen.nl will appeal. ®

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