WASHINGTON (CN) - The D.C. Circuit struggled Friday over a suit that would hold search engines like Google liable for letting disreputable locksmiths manipulate their map results.
A group of legitimate locksmiths initiated the litigation in December 2016 after discovering that unscrupulous competitors were boosting their reputations and profits by dropping pinpoints on maps to make it seem like they had storefronts close to a person looking for a locksmith.
In addition to lacking the claimed storefront, however, the “scammer” locksmiths also tend to gouge their prices once they have a panicked customer on the hook.
The legitimate locksmiths want the D.C. Circuit to reverse a ruling earlier this year that dismissed the suit under the Communications Decency Act.
Though this law exempts web hosts from liability over information they publish from a third party, attorney Barry Roberts told the appellate panel Friday that it is not a third party supplying the addresses.
Since the locksmiths typically only list a phone number on their websites, Roberts insisted that address is “information that's coming from the search engine.”
By publishing fake addresses, Roberts said the search engines are inducing customers to call the scammer locksmiths over legitimate operations.
King & Spalding attorney Kathleen McCarthy argued for the search engines meanwhile that the decision of where to put a pinpoint on a map is "essentially" a publishing choice — equivalent to the practice of giving ad space high up on a search results page to companies that pay for it.
She told the judges Congress intended to protect providers from liability for such publishing decisions, given the breadth of information available online.
McCarthy also argued that the free market carries repercussions for search engines that routinely publish false information.
"These platforms are entitled to set up their maps in the manner they want to set up their maps," McCarthy said.
But the three D.C. Circuit judges who heard the case Friday morning struggled to find the bounds of each party's argument, sometimes growing frustrated with both Roberts and McCarthy for fighting hypothetical questions posed to them.
Judge Patricia Millett questioned Roberts about how search engines are supposed to be able to distinguish scam locksmiths from genuine ones without doing an unreasonable amount of research into every person who claims to be able to crack a lock in a city.
"How would the service providers know which ones are scammers versus which ones aren't?" Millett asked.
The judges also struggled to pin McCarthy down on where exactly the addresses the search engines publish come from if not from the search engines. Chief Judge Merrick Garland seemed surprised McCarthy could claim the search engines are not adding their own information to their maps if all they receive from a locksmith in most cases is a phone number.
"Why would that be, even if the information didn't come from anyone other than the defendant itself?" Garland asked.
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