Johnny I. Henry says he was humiliated that Google and AOL returned search results that refer to him with a hateful term.
"In the case of 'Jew' as a search term, one of the top results has been an anti-Semitic site, and users were upset about that result, so we included the explanation," Google's official said. "But here's the key difference: 'Jew' is not a racial epithet (although it can certainly be used as one); if you search for a racial epithet, you can reasonably expect results related to that epithet, some of which may be unpleasant or even abhorrent. We remove results from search only if that content is illegal, such as child pornography."
Henry's lawsuit faces long odds. Section 230 of Title 47 of the United States Code exempts service providers like Google from liability for content posted by third parties. It will almost certainly be dismissed on that basis.
Eric Goldman, associate professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, observes that's probably for the best.
"This issue comes up all the time, which is we think we can, through legal tools, force Google or other search engines to manage their search results better," he said. "And that's a sucker's bet. We all know that's a recipe for ultimately dooming search engines. From a legal standpoint it would be tempting to say we could do better, but chances are we would muck up the works."
At the same time, some people are trying to chip away at the protection afforded to Internet service providers by Section 230, Goldman said, though specific legislation to that effect has yet to be introduced. He points to the issue of cyberbullying.
In a blog post, he also pointed to a number of court cases that suggest some limits to the immunity granted by Section 230. "47 USC 230 has weathered plaintiff attacks very well in the past dozen years, but the last 6 months have opened up a number of angles for plaintiffs to explore," he wrote.