Sunday, September 26, 2010

Absence of Malice?

Yahoo! News pulled the following story from their Agence France-Press wire last night:
A Paris court has convicted US search engine giant Google and its chief executive Eric Schmidt of defamation over results from its "suggest" function, a French legal affairs website has revealed.

The new function, which suggests options as you type in a word, brought up the words "rapist" and "satanist" when the plaintiff's name was typed into the search engine, reported.

The court ordered Google to make a symbolic payment of one euro in damages and take measures to ensure they could be no repeat of the offence.

The plaintiff in this case had been convicted on appeal to a three-year jail sentence for corruption of a minor, a conviction that was not yet definitive, when he discovered the results on entering his name in a Google search.

The court concluded that the search engine's linking his name to such words was defamatory.

The court ruled that Google had not showed its good faith in the matter and ordered it to pay 5,000 euros (6,700 dollars) towards the plaintiff's costs.

A Google spokesman told AFP by email that they would be appealing the ruling.

The statement said that the Google Suggest function simply reflected the most common terms used in the past with words entered, so it was not Google itself that was making the suggestions.
I was wondering when Google would have its next nasty "bump" (as Ken Auletta has put it) into reality and whether or not that bump would involve yet another confrontation with the concept of evil.  Character defamation may not be one of the seven cardinal sins;  but it probably falls under the "false witness" commandment.  So I would be willing to classify it as evil in my book;  and, if Schmidt does not agree, then it is up to him to provide a damned good reason.

Needless to say, the final sentence in the above account is not such a reason.  Ironically, the reason why it is not a reason goes back to one of the most important points that Auletta has made with his bump metaphor.  Even more ironic is that my summary of his position back in April cuts so close to the current case that it deserves to be repeated:
Whatever the Google "philosophy" (scare quotes intended) may be, the heart of the revenue-bearing business resides in keywords; the result is a technology that essentially reduces the word to a string of characters, thus neatly dispensing with any matters concerned with syntax, semantics, pragmatics, or any other consideration that addresses how a text is actually interpreted. When you strip all trappings of meaning from the word itself, "bumping into" reality is inevitable, just as it is when people speaking different languages are mediated by a poor translator. Many of those "bumps" are humorous; and we can laugh them off simply by acknowledging that "this is the way Google works." Auletta's warning, however, involves the risk that, as Google becomes even more prolific, the more sinister "bumps" will begin to increase and eventually outnumber the humorous ones.
Defamation of character is not a laughing matter;  and, while the fine may have been "symbolic," the court clearly recognized that the plaintiff's suit was not frivolous through their decision to have Google pay the court costs.  Of course in the overall Google budget that fee is virtually as symbolic as the fine;  but that just adds to my deeper case that, as an institution, Google commands a knowledge of the symbolic that is dangerously weak.  One can only wonder how sinister the next "bump" with reality will be.  Perhaps it will emerge from how they choose to respond to the order to take measures against the latest episode repeating, which can range from recognizing a serious problem in semantics and rising to the challenge to blowing off the judge's order as insignificant.  Which path will they choose?

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