Google Sued By Inventor of Vibrating Toilet Seat

Johnny I. Henry says he was humiliated that Google and AOL returned search results that refer to him with a hateful term.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

May 22, 2009

3 Min Read

Google this week was sued, along with AOL, by Johnny I. Henry, the inventor of a vibrating toilet seat.

Note the use of the indefinite article "a," rather than the definite article "the," to indicate that there might be more than one such device. According to Google Patents, two other inventors received a patent for a vibrating toilet seat of their own in 1990.

Though Google is known for its use of high-tech toilets, this is not a patent claim.

Henry, an African American, claims that search results delivered by Google and AOL defame and slander him.

The search results at issue lead to sites that refer to Henry with a hateful racial epithet. They include that epithet in the snippet of text culled from the sites.

In his pro se filing, Henry claims that he was humiliated and horrified to discover that Google and AOL would allow such sites to be presented.

Had Henry chosen to use Google with the SafeSearch preference set to "Use strict filtering," he wouldn't have seen the sites and been offended. That's because the sites in question appear to host sexual content. "Safe Search currently applies to sexual content only, not to racial epithets," explained a Google official in an e-mail.

Beyond its automated filtering mechanism, Google makes an attempt to mitigate the presence of offensive search results for one particular term: "Jew." A search for that keyword returns a Google-sponsored advertisement with the link "Offensive Search Results." The landing page provides an explanation of why search results associated with the term may be offensive.

A search for the epithet used against Henry does not return such an ad.

"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.

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About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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