Goddard v. Google, Inc.

Search engine conglomerate Google, wasn’t held liable because of the content in advertisements which appeared in its search results although it made suggestions what terms an advertisement would associate with, after a California district court issues it’s ruling in June 2009.[6] The court ruled the suggestions weren’t enough to deny its immunity as a publisher of content brought by third parties.

The CDA, or US Communications and Decency Act, issues an immunity for those publishing content by them through third party information providers.

Advertisements which appear next to results to queries in Google – that are the result of companies who pay for ads to pop up beside certain keywords – have traditionally been considered within the exemption in Section 230 of the CDA since 1996[5]

Plaintiff Jenna Goddard, sued Google because she claimed the Google’s system algorithm for keywords produced liability for fraudulent online subscription services.

Court Filing

She claimed Googles system contributed to illegality within material published. Further arguing that it even requires inclusion of content which is illegal content with the advertisements. Goddard went so far as to say the keyword tool provided by Google suggests terms advertisements may be associated with.[2] Which provided direct evidence of Google’s direct involvement in misleading ads, proving her point Google is in fact not a neutral tool which should be protected by section 230 immunity.

Goddard states when advertisers look to associate their advertisements using the word “ringtone”; Google’s tool makes the suggestion that they should associate it with “free ringtone”. Goddard claims that “free ringtone” is a keyword often used by scam like services, and Google’s algorithm misleadingly directs people by including for ‘free ringtone’ as a keyword.[1]

Here, she argued, made the company more than a segway for third-party info, making it partially liable for fraudulent activity for some of the service operators whose advertisements displayed beside search query results containing the keyword “free ringtone”.

US Court of Northern District of California

But, the Northern District of California United States District Court disagreed. Ruling that developer liability is not established simply by Goddard suggesting Google’s keyword tool ‘materially contributes’ to the supposed illegality by assuming Google is aware of possible fraudulent activity which promotes a situation in which the term “free ringtone” is disproportionally appropriated to queries involving “ringtone”.[4]

Federal Judge Jeremy Fogel referenced a ruling in a recent case involving Roommates.com as a party “Even if a particular tool facilitates the expression of information, it generally will be considered “neutral” so long as users ultimately determine what content to post, such that the tool merely provides a framework that could be utilized for proper or improper purposes.”[3]

“The provision of neutral tools generally will not affect the availability of CDA immunity ‘even if a service provider knows that third parties are using such tools to create illegal content’,” he said, quoting one of his own rulings in an earlier stage of this case. “As a result, a plaintiff may not establish developer liability merely by alleging that the operator of a website should have known that the availability of certain tools might facilitate the posting of improper content.”[5]

Referencing the roomate.com judgment one last time toward the end of the opinion: “Substantially greater involvement is required, such as the situation in which the website ‘elicits the allegedly illegal content and makes aggressive use of it in conducting its business’,”

At the end of the day Judge Fogel ruled “Google’s Keyword Tool is a neutral tool. It does nothing more than provide options that advertisers may adopt or reject at their discretion,”

[1] Berkley Technology Law Journal, “Cyberlaw: Additional Developments”, https://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1889&context=btlj

[2] – Links & Law, “Search Engine Law / 2004-2010”, http://www.linksandlaw.com/linkingcases-searchenginenews.htm

[3] – https://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/08/05/google_keyword_suggestion_judgment/

[4] – California Northern District Court, “Goddard v. Google, Inc., 640 F. Supp. 2d 1193, 1195”, https://advance.lexis.com/document?crid=82faf8f3-5e68

[5] – Washington Journal of Law, Technology & Arts, “CHOOSE YOUR WORDS WISELY: AFFIRMATIVE REPRESENTATIONS AS A LIMIT ON § 230 IMMUNITY” https://digital.law.washington.edu/dspace-law/bitstream/handle/1773.1/1034/6WJLTA259.pdf?sequence=4

[6] – UCLA Journal of Law, Technology & Policy, “SEARCH ENGINE LIABILITY” http://illinoisjltp.com/journal/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Smith.pdf

Bobbie Seignior,Section 230 Communications Decency Act US, Youtube