Google Accused of Profiting off Hacked Celebrity Photos

by Matt Klassen on October 6, 2014

Google is at fault for the continued propagation of the hacked nude celebrity photos that were illegally stolen from iPhones and other devices early in September, Entertainment lawyer Martin Singer, a partner with Lavely & Singer says, accusing the search engine giant of failing to act “expeditiously and responsibly” in the removal of the images. To that end, Google now finds itself on the receiving end of a $100 million lawsuit from attorneys representing some of the celebrities comprised in the scandal.

While one may wonder how Google is at fault here–for as I’ve explained before, Google is not the disseminator of such scandalous data, but merely the indexer of it—the company is accused not only of failing to act quickly to remove the images, but Google also “knowingly accommodated, facilitated and perpetuated unlawful conduct.”

The reason Google did this, as if it’s a surprise, is that the search firm has been able to profit off the advertising that appears on the webpages that feature these hacked images, ostensibly choosing “to protect its revenue stream partners in order to earn multi millions of dollars on a weekly basis over the rights and protection of individuals,” Singer said in a letter delivered to Google several weeks ago. But does Google have any responsibility in this case, as I have to wonder if celebrities are simply shooting the messenger because Google stands as both a prominent and easy target?

According to Singer many smaller sites who were hit with similar requests from the removal of the stolen photos accommodated the notice without issue, leading the lawyer to charge that Google’s tacit role in the continued presence of the photos means that the company is “profiting from the victimization of women,” unwilling to remove the photos because it doesn’t want to disrupt its various revenue streams.

But guilty or not, this legal case is clearly fighting at uphill battle. “Many others have tried similar suits, and virtually all of them have failed either immediately or on appeal,” Jeremy Mishkin, a partner in Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads told the E-Commerce Times. In fact, while the celebrities may win in the court of public opinion, Mishkin admitted that it’s hard to “see a legal basis for this suit.”

Now don’t get me wrong, there are things Google could do to remove this content from its web index, thus effectively removing it from search queries. In fact, the controversial Right to be Forgotten battle being fought in the EU is centered on this very point, as Google is being legally forced to remove links to certain content, not removing them from the Internet per se, but removing any external online connection to the content in question.

Of course this entire discussion of what Google could do is connected to Google’s role on the Internet as a whole. The company is not a publisher of content, explicit or otherwise, but simply the indexer of such content. It is as responsible for those sometimes helpful WebMD medical tips as it is for nude celebrity photos; that is to say, not responsible at all. The content on the Internet is the sole responsibility of the publisher, but of course it’s often hard to find out who the publishers are, given that content like this is usually copied and re-published innumerable times by innumerable third parties.

While we may pine for some regulations and restrictions over what is published on the Internet, such policing is almost impossible, and it is completely inappropriate to expect a private enterprise like Google to fill such a role.

So while there is some precedent for Google to remove the links and sites from its search index, that precedent comes from Europe and has no bearing, at least not yet, on anything here at home. While we might think Google should do something, I would wager that it would be both a herculean task, for as Vlad Zachary, director of omni-channel commerce at Upshot Commerce, notes, “It is virtually impossible to prevent all copyright-protected content from digital distribution,” and set a dangerous precedent in its own right, as suddenly everyone, celebrity or not, would be trying to impose their will on Web content, a First Amendment controversy if there ever was one.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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