Late last week a Japanese court ordered Google to remove two reviews from Google Maps that were critical of a local medical clinic. An unnamed doctor who operated or worked at the clinic and allegedly treated the reviewer-patients signed an affidavit swearing that the reviews were false (and allegedly defamatory).
According to TechCrunch, which first reported the decision, the clinic sued the individuals for defamation. The Japanese District Court is now requiring Google to not only remove the reviews from Google Japan but also from its global results. (As with the Right to Be Forgotten in Europe, this is another example of a local jurisdiction trying to exercise control over Google’s global index.)
The company faces a modest potential fine of roughly ($2,500) if it fails to do so. The fine is obviously not the issue. The larger question and concern is the potential precedent this might set both in Japan and potentially other countries without strong free speech laws. In many countries privacy, religious orthodoxy, “sedition” and other types of values often trump speech.
According to the TechCrunch article, “neither review violates the policies that Google has in place for user generated content within the Maps service.” Google has said it may appeal.
Little has been reported about the underlying facts or evidence presented in the case. If the case involved the clear presentation of evidence that the reviews were fabricated and defamatory then the removals are not anything to necessarily worry about.
It appears, however, that the doctor-plaintiff simply issued a formal denial and that was enough to support the court’s decision. If that is indeed the case then this decision has potentially broad and very negative implications. Any disgruntled professional or business owner in Japan, confronted with critical reviews, could potentially invoke the decision and follow a similar procedure to get the reviews removed.
Business-friendly courts and the threat of litigation could then be used to broadly intimidate those who might be inclined to write critical reviews of services they receive.