Google have reached an agreement with a former Morgan Stanley banker who was a victim of one of the most extreme campaigns of trolling in recent memory. Daniel Hegglin was subjected to a vicious campaign of false abuse by an internet troll who had been directing abuse at the banker since 2011. Mr Hegglin had been falsely accused of being a murderer, a racist and a paedophile.
The legal action was being watched by the world’s media in part because of the attention Google received in May in the right to be forgotten litigation. With an annual revenue of $60 billion Google has dominated the information age. The Hegglin case is however somewhat different from the right to be forgotten. In May 2014 the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) found that people can have a right to be forgotten. The CJEU ruled that Google had to remove results that are “inaccurate, irrelevant or no longer relevant or excessive”. The CJEU also said that Google are a “data controller” and that they have responsibilities in relation to handling data. We wrote about it earlier this year (see here). The right to be forgotten concerns the removal of material that is true but is now out-of-date or irrelevant. The case of Mr Hegglin is different. It concerns anonymous and false abuse that is not covered by the right to be forgotten.
There has been confusion about what the legal redress is when someone is the subject of false and anonymous abuse on the internet. The law of defamation and the criminal law can be invoked when someone is the subject of online abuse. The difficulty with anonymous abusers are that they can often leave the victim without legal redress. There have been complaints that search engine operators and social media do not act quickly enough in removing such abuse from the internet.
In this case Google had said that if Mr Hegglin provided them with a list of links that he wanted removed they would remove the links. The scale of the abuse directed at Mr Hegglin spanned 4,000 sites and he said he was finding it impossible to stop this misinformation being spread by simply providing Google with the details of the links. This case centred on the issue of Google’s responsibilities. They have always been keen to stress that they do not fully control the results which appear on search results. They said yesterday that “they cannot be responsible for policing the internet”.
The case has now settled with Google agreeing to remove offending data on Mr Hegglin from its search results. Had the case proceeded to a hearing we may have been clearer about how the courts saw Google’s responsibilities in removing troll abuse. There does seem to be a culture change where the tech giants are more often being held to account by the courts. Warren Buffet once said that “it takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to destroy it”. The change in our legal culture may give more rights to individuals to manage their reputations. Difficulties still however remain with this. In Mr Hegglin’s case there seems little doubt that the rumours about him were not true. In some cases, however, the allegations are true but the individuals concerned are trying to use the law to clear up a somewhat chequered past. Whether the courts will step in in cases like this remains to be seen.
Patrick O’Kane is Compliance Counsel with Cordery in London
Patrick O’Kane, Cordery, Lexis House, 30 Farringdon Street, London, EC4A 4HH
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