Google has free speech right in search results, court confirms

A San Francisco court ruled last week that Google has the right to arrange its search results as it pleases, which confirms the company’s long-held position, while underscoring the stark difference in how U.S. and European authorities seek to regulate the search giant.

The new ruling, which is the first since 2007 to address Google’s rights under the First Amendment, came after a website called CoastNews argued that [company]Google[/company] had unfairly pushed it far down in its search results — even though, CoastNews claimed, its site appeared at the top of results created by [company]Bing [/company]and [company]Yahoo[/company]. CoastNews suggested the poor rankings were because Google wanted to eliminate CoastNews as a potential competitor.

Google responded by filing an “anti-SLAPP” motion, a legal tactic used to quickly challenge lawsuits that seek to stifle free speech. In a one-paragraph ruling, Judge Ernest Goldsmith granted the request, saying CoastNews’ claims against Google related to “constitutionally protected activity.”

The decision is important because it comes at a time when companies like [company]Yelp[/company] or Travelocity complain that Google, as it moves into fields like restaurants and travel, can use its power over search results to help its own websites at the expense of rivals. In Europe, regulators are moving to impose a series of measures — such as forcing Google to display rivals’ ads in a prominent place — intended to address the company’s allegedly anti-competitive conduct.

In the United States, however, the Federal Trade Commission conducted a long-running investigation into Google but ultimately left the company alone. Even though the agency didn’t say so, a big reason is likely because Google’s search results appear to be protected by the First Amendment.

While Google has long adopted this “search results as free speech” position, it’s become more important since the company has, in recent years, retreated from its earlier position that its search results are inherently neutral. Until this month, however, the only court cases supporting Google’s free-speech position came from 2007 and 2003, when the company was decidedly smaller and less influential.

Google may have also got a boost earlier this when a federal court in New York found the Chinese search engine Baidu had a free-speech right to censor pro-democracy websites on the grounds that such choices are akin to editorial decisions. In its argument to the court, Google cited the Baidu case, and also a 1985 case where the California Supreme Court said a publisher could not challenge its exclusion from the New York Times bestseller list because the Times’ list was a form of expression.

The new ruling may disappoint websites that feel they are at the mercy of Google for much of their traffic, and who would regulators to impose rules on Google. On the other hand, as Google Chairman Eric Schmidt argued last month, the importance of search results may be declining at a time when more consumers are looking for information on retail sites like Amazon or on social media.

The judge’s SLAPP ruling is only one paragraph long, so I’m including instead Google’s motion, which provides some of the facts and the legal issues at stake.

Google SLAPP Suit

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