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Google Wins U.K. Libel Lawsuit

The British High Court has ruled that Google isn't responsible for third-party comments found in search results. But search engine liability issues remain.

Google's growing list of legal worries got a bit shorter last week when the British High Court ruled that Google isn't liable for defamatory content found through its search engine.

"I do not consider that on the evidence before me [Google] can be regarded as a publisher of the words complained of, whether before or after notification," said Justice David Eady in his ruling.

The case was filed by Metropolitan International Schools Ltd., a U.K.-based online training company that now uses the names "SkillsTrain" and/or "Train2Game." The company objected to comments in Internet forums that disparaged the company, calling it a scam and accusing it of violating U.K. trade laws and consumer credit laws.

"We are pleased with this result, which reinforces the principle that search engines aren't responsible for content that is published on third-party Web sites," said Google spokesperson Jane Penner in an e-mailed statement. "Mr. Justice Eady made clear that if someone feels they have been defamed by material on a Web site then they should address their complaint to the person who actually wrote and published the material, and not a search engine, which simply provides a searchable index of content on the Internet."

Although U.S. law, specifically Section 230 of the Federal Communications Decency Act, states that interactive computer service providers are not considered to be the publishers of information posted by service users, that principle isn't universally accepted yet elsewhere in the world.

Despite the relatively recent passage of laws in many countries that offer limited immunity to search engines for content in search indexes, Google continues to confront liability claims over the information that it indexes and makes available to search engine users.

In May, for example, Spain's Court of First Instance found Google was not liable for defamatory content, based on a 2002 law protecting Internet hosting companies.

In March, a French appeals court ruled in Google's favor in a similar case over a defamatory snippet and hyperlink.

In Italy, Google 's global privacy counsel, Peter Fleischer, and three other Google executives are scheduled to be tried in late September for failing to take adequate steps to keep offensive content off of YouTube. Under Italian law, Internet content providers, unlike Internet service providers, have the same responsibility for content as newspapers and broadcasters.

Google is being tried as an Internet content provider. Whether that designation sticks will be one of the matters contested in the courtroom.

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