Deceptive Map Results Won’t Leave Google Liable

WASHINGTON (CN) — Search engines like Google cannot be held liable for the manipulation of map results that lend legitimacy to unscrupulous locksmiths, the D.C. Circuit ruled Friday.

Led by Marshall’s Locksmith Service, 14 companies brought the lawsuit here against Google, Yahoo and Microsoft in 2016. Noting that in the locksmith business proximity is key, the plaintiffs accused the search engines of giving an unfair advantage to scammers that pay to advertise fictitious physical storefronts in the location where potential customers are searching.

Google and the other search engines insisted that their algorithms are neutral, however, and the D.C. Circuit agreed Friday, affirming dismissal of the case.

“The plaintiffs’ amended complaint effectively acknowledges that the defendants’ algorithms operate in this [neutral] fashion: it alleges that the words and numbers the scam locksmiths use to give the appearance of locality have ‘tricked Google’ into placing the pinpoints in the geographic regions that the scam locksmiths desire,” Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Merrick Garland wrote for a three-judge panel.

“To recognize that Google has been ‘tricked’ is to acknowledge that its algorithm neutrally translates both legitimate and scam information in the same manner,” the ruling continues.

Invoking a 1996 law called the Communications Decency Act, Garland said that computer service providers cannot be held liable for information made public on their platforms by another party.

The locksmiths failed to sway the court that Google and the other companies’ mapping tools created new “enhanced” content.

“Indeed, were the display of this kind of information not immunized, nothing would be: every representation by a search engine of another party’s information requires the translation of a digital transmission into textual or pictorial form,” the ruling states.

A lawyer for the locksmiths voiced disappointment in the decision Friday.

“This conduct wouldn’t be tolerated in many other industries,” attorney Barry Roberts said in phone interview. “This appears to be in the hands of the legislators now because the courts failed to act.”

Judge Garland did include a warning to the tech companies that their immunity under the Communications Decency Act has limits.

“In this vein, we reject the defendants’ remarkable suggestion at oral argument that they would enjoy immunity even if they did in fact entirely fabricate locksmith addresses,” the final paragraph of the opinion states.

Kathleen McCarthy, a lawyer for the search engines with the firm King & Spalding, referred a request for comment to Google. The company did not respond to an inquiry by press time.

U.S. Circuit Judges Harry Edwards and Patricia Millett concurred in the ruling.

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