French blogger owes $2,000 in damages for review 'too prominent' on Google

The blogger's critique of a restaurant was so high in Google's search results that it damaged the restaurant's reputation, a French court ruled.

Jens Meyer/AP/File
Exhibitors of the Google company work on laptop computers in front of an illuminated sign of the Google logo at the industrial fair Hannover Messe in Hanover, Germany, in 2007. Google’s removal of search results in Europe is drawing accusations of press censorship, as stories from some of the continent’s most prominent news outlets begin vanishing.

A blogger eats in an Italian restaurant in southwestern France. She thinks the food is bad, the service even worse, and she writes up a review that is not glowing, to put it mildly.

It’s a scenario that plays out daily in the cyberworld. Hair in a dish of pasta? Many would snap a photo and share it on Twitter or Facebook. An insufferable waiter? Blog it out.

But this blogger, a French woman named Caroline Doudet who runs “Cultur'elle,” got sued for it by the restaurant Il Giardino.

And a judge has ruled that she must amend the title of her piece – because with it the post appears too prominently in Google search results – and that she owes $2,000 in damages.

The blog, originally titled “The place to avoid in Cap-Ferret: Il Giardino,” was taken down by Ms. Doudet, but it’s still cached in cyberspace.

Doudet told The Christian ScienceMonitor that the experience won’t have legal repercussions for other bloggers, since French lawyers are fairly unanimous about the fact that her case doesn’t set legal precedent, she says. But it does carry the risk that other bloggers could tone down their criticism in fear of retaliation.

She also made a very good point to the local newspaper Sud Ouest that if bloggers don’t have the liberty to write bad reviews, good reviews become essentially meaningless.

The judge, according to court documents reported by the BBC, said that her blog, with over 3,000 followers, came up as the fourth result any time someone searched for the restaurant in Google. Therefore, she reasoned, the title should be changed so “place to avoid” was less prominent.

The case comes as the issue of the “right to be forgotten,” upheld by the European Court of Justice in May, is creating headaches across the Internet.

That case, which has major implications for Google and other mostly US-based companies, revolves around a Spanish man who wanted links from newspaper articles about his debt problems – from 15 years ago – removed from Google. The court ruled that citizens have the rights to request information be removed from search results that include their names if it is "inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant, or excessive."

How that plays out on a practical level is a controversial and laborious undertaking. A Google spokesman told Reuters that they’ve just started to take action with the request for removals that they’ve received.  "This is a new process for us,” he said. “Each request has to be assessed individually and we're working as quickly as possible to get through the queue."

Right now the public mood in Europe sides largely with the individual, amid European frustration over American spying, a year after US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed widespread surveillance, including of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone.

The European zeitgeist on privacy is perhaps best reflected in another story that has broken this week. At least one German politician said he and others are thinking about reverting to a simpler mode of communication to avoid American eavesdropping: the manual typewriter.

As the Guardian reported last week:

German politicians are considering a return to using manual typewriters for sensitive documents in the wake of the US surveillance scandal.

The head of the Bundestag's parliamentary inquiry into NSA activity in Germany said in an interview with the Morgenmagazin TV program that he and his colleagues were seriously thinking of ditching email completely.

Asked "Are you considering typewriters" by the interviewer on Monday night, the Christian Democrat politician Patrick Sensburg said: "As a matter of fact, we have – and not electronic models either". "Really?" the surprised interviewer checked. "Yes, no joke," Sensburg responded.

Many people – the owner of Il Giardino in Cap-Ferret, to the financially unstable Spanish man, and including this writer – might wish that reviews got written on typewriters, that opinions about them disappeared with the day’s newspaper. And there is a serious concern that personal vendettas and anonymous criticism have the power to undermine someone or some place that can be catastrophic.

But in many cases, targets also run the risk of generating even more attention for trying to suppress what’s out there. In the online world, this has become known as the Streisand Effect, after actress and singer Barbara Streisand. In 2003, she sued a California coastal photography project for invasion of privacy, after the project published a picture of her seaside home. But the lawsuit in fact drew attention to what she was trying to hide, as a photo of her home that would most likely have been ignored instead became an object of major public interest.

This restaurant in France seems to be destined for the same fate. Type in Il Giardino Cap-Ferret in Google today. Doudet’s article is no longer there. In its place are news links, with comment after comment, about a restaurant that can’t take criticism – or tolerate freedom of speech.

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