Got a bad business review? Suing Google a mixed bag

A Google search page is reflected in sunglasses. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Online reviews can be a blessing and a curse. If a disgruntled client blasts your business online, that review is permanently archived and searchable. What can you do about it?

Unlike in Europe, where Google must remove links by request, Canadians don’t have any legally guaranteed right to be forgotten.

Two recent court decisions in B.C. have helped muddy the waters.

The first tackles a question of defamatory online reviews and whether Google can be held accountable as a publisher.

Vancouver lawyer Glenn Niemela sought an injunction against Google to remove 146 links to material that a court agreed was “clearly defamatory.” The links went to reviews hosted on ripoffreport.com and reviewstalk.com, and if those website names tell us anything, it’s that the content is probably unflattering.

Google isn’t responsible for those websites, but Niemela wanted the search giant to drop the links and “snippets” that appear in results for his name.

The snippets are the brief sentence of phrase that accompany a page title and URL in a search result, like:


Ripoff Report 
 Glenn J. Niemela Complaint Review …

www.ripoffreport.com/...glenn-j-niemela/glenn-j-niemela-hes-a-scam...

Oct 18, 2012 - Glenn J. Niemela Complaint Review. Glenn J. Niemela He’s a scam artist and steals from his clients while doing nothing to help them with their…


Niemela couldn’t go after the sites themselves since he has no idea where they’re based. But he figured Google could at least make the defamatory stuff harder to find.

Google voluntarily dropped the URLs from its Canadian search results, but Niemela wanted a worldwide block. The court said it couldn’t be done, since it’s “reluctant to make an order that cannot be complied with.”

One major problem is that it wouldn’t work in the U.S., where two different laws protect internet providers and block orders that infringe on free speech.

Another issue is whether Google is, as it claims, merely a “passive” purveyor of search results, meaning that the results are just generated automatically and the company takes no part in the search. An “active” company could face liability, but the court agreed that Google is indeed passive.

That said, the other recent B.C. case had some very different perspectives on the Google question. In Equustek Solutions Inc. v. Google Inc., a three-judge panel said Google is not a passive publisher and also found there’s no reason other jurisdictions could not enforce a B.C. court order, so long as the order isn’t “offensive to its core values.” So hopefully nobody in the U.S. is too tied to that whole “freedom of speech” thing.

So, what’s the take-away from these cases? If someone’s bashing you online, it seems court action could be a bit of a crapshoot.

Niemela did make some big mistakes that hurt his case though: anyone seeking an injunction needs to prove that they would suffer irreparable harm without it, but he couldn’t make the case. He waited two years to file the complaint, indicating the problem was maybe not that urgent and although he said those reviews led to a major drop-off in business, there were other factors that could have done so as well.

If you’re seeking to battle the online bashers, you’re taking your chances. Don’t waste time and go in with a strong case.

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