Courts in the US have consistently held that search engines have almost total discretion over the content on their pages and ranking algorithms under the First Amendment of the US Constitution. This is a legal defense against companies bringing claims about the economic impact of ranking changes or Google’s SEO-related policies.
However, a court in Florida has now allowed a case against Google to proceed, in which the search engine manually removed links it categorized as “pure spam” and in violation of quality guidelines. According to legal tech writer Eric Goldman, the Florida court disregarded “virtually all of Google’s arguments” to allow the lawsuit to go forward.
The case is called e-ventures Worldwide, LLC vs. Google. According to the facts laid out in court documents, in 2014 “e-ventures was notified by Google that 231 websites owned by e-ventures were being manually removed by Google from all of Google’s search results because they had been identified as ‘pure spam.’” Eventually all or most of e-ventures’ URLs were delisted.
The plaintiff argues its sites were not spam, that Google delisted it erroneously and that it has suffered “irreparable harm” as a result. After the plaintiff was unable to overcome the ban by making various changes to its sites, it sued Google.
In its complaint, e-ventures makes a number of different claims and arguments under several Florida statutes. The factual essence of those claims is that Google capriciously removed plaintiff’s sites in violation of its own policies and sought to use delisting as a tool to force plaintiff to buy AdWords. There are antitrust contentions and references in the complaint as well.
To be clear, what has happened here is that the Florida trial court has allowed the plaintiff’s case to survive Google’s motion to dismiss at the beginning of the case. It has not ruled on the validity or merits of the underlying claims. It has simply said there are enough facts to allow the plaintiff to proceed with the lawsuit. But the ruling is noteworthy because it seems to fly in the face of established legal precedent.
Eric Goldman summarizes the implications of allowing these kinds of cases to proceed — lawsuits against Google each time a ranking update or manual action by Google penalizes a publisher:
If Google can’t freely decide to downgrade or de-index what it considers to be “pure spam,” then Google faces liability pretty much any time it automatically or manually rejiggers its index (which always creates some winners and some potentially-litigious losers). It seems hard to believe that this case will be the one to break Google, especially given all of the prior attempts from more sympathetic plaintiffs, but that’s what makes this court’s initial ruling so disquieting.