Google lawsuit has implications for CEOs

2 Jul 2007

A lawsuit being taken by a London businessman against Google would mean the search giant could be held liable for the content of its 11.5 billion web pages.

It also carries implications for CEOs around the world who fail to prevent libellous information from being posted on company websites or elsewhere.

On Friday it emerged that London businessman Brian Retkin, managing director of domain name registrar dotworlds, is suing Google in a landmark legal action for defamation after the search engine directed users to web pages making damaging and groundless allegations about his business methods.

Internet experts warned that if the action was successful it would mean that Google could be held liable for the content of 11.5 billion web pages.

The businessman alleges the search engine directed users to web pages that he claims contained deeply offensive and commercially damaging material about his business.

In one posting on an internet discussion forum Retkin was wrongly accused of cashing in on the 9/11 attacks on the US by offering the free registration of domain names that took advantage of patriotic fervour in the US around that time.

In other anonymous postings Retkin is groundlessly accused of conducting a fraudulent business.

Chris Palmer, a principal consultant for EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) with Computer Associates (CA), believes that if the lawsuit is successful it will cause shockwaves through the information industry, not just in terms of internet service providers, search engines and forums but also in the corporate world.

“This goes way beyond SOX legislation which is focused on the flow of information within an organisation and means businesses will have to become much more aware and responsible for the flow of information beyond its boundaries.

“If libellous comments or documents leave an organisation then the company as well as the facilitator of that information flow becomes liable and this should be a big concern for organisations. It dramatically raises the importance of information governance technology and security measures around how information, whether digital or physical, can be disseminated and to whom.

“It also raises the issue of information posted on the company website and links through to other sites. If you have a link to another site which is deemed libellous, then you are as liable as they are. In short, the approach to information management needs a much higher level of importance and scrutiny,” Palmer said.

Palmer said that Google’s “keep everything, forever” model, without knowing the value or consequences of that information, is exposing the search giant to increased risk of litigation.

“A lot of CEOs in the commercial world are probably reading this news with a great deal of anxiety. They’ll be concerned that they have a huge amount of information they don’t know about which could be particularly damaging from a regulatory, compliance or litigation standpoint and is costing them a fortune to store as well.”

To avoid such issues arising Palmer said organisations need to know what information they have across the whole enterprise, irrespective of format or media, and manage it properly according to its value to the business

“[They need to] have the confidence to be able to delete information that has no value or whose value has expired, not just through ‘old age’ but because the event to which it relates has expired in legal terms,” Palmer added.

By John Kennedy