A Quebec Superior Court judge has ordered Google to pay $500,000 to a Montreal man who sued the company after it restored a link to an online post falsely accusing him of being a pedophile.
In his ruling late last month, Justice Azimuddin Hussain also ordered the company to remove links to the post from its search results in Quebec. The judge said search engines have a responsibility under Quebec law to remove links to illegal content – including defamatory posts – once they are notified of its existence.
The man, whose identity is protected by a publication ban, first discovered the defamatory content in 2007 when he used Google to search his name. He is described in the court ruling as a “prominent businessman with a long list of achievements both in Canada and in the United States.”
“Like Franz Kafka’s character, Josef K. in The Trial, the plaintiff woke up one day to find himself accused of a crime he did not commit,” Hussain said. “In the plaintiff’s case, he was accused of already having been convicted of the crime and a particularly heinous crime at that.”
With the help of a friend, the plaintiff attempted to have the material removed from the website where it first appeared, without success. He also asked Google to remove links to the website, as well as a short extract from the site, on the search engine’s results page.
“Google ignored the plaintiff, told him it could do nothing, told him it could remove the hyperlink on the Canadian version of its search engine but not the U.S. one, but then allowed it to reappear on the Canadian version after a 2011 judgment of the Supreme Court of Canada in an unrelated matter involving the publication of hyperlinks,” the judge wrote.
Google did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday afternoon.
The ruling says that in 2009, Google removed a link to the post from the search results that appeared on its Canadian website. Google would remove links twice more at the man’s request – later that year and in 2011 – after the post resurfaced in its search results.
But in 2015, after the man found a link to the content again on Google’s search results, the company refused to remove it.
“The plaintiff found himself helpless in a surreal and excruciating contemporary online ecosystem as he lived through a dark odyssey to have the defamatory post removed from public circulation,” the judge wrote.
Hussain limited the scope of his decision to Google’s refusal in 2015 to remove links to the post, and events after that.
The man, who is now in his early 70s, told the court that he believes potential clients have backed out of deals because they saw the post, adding that his career, which had previously been marked by success, began to spiral.
Two friends testified they refused to use their influence to help him find jobs because they worried the post would make those efforts fruitless.
His personal relationships also suffered, including those with his two sons, the ruling said.
One son testified that his girlfriend’s parents declined to meet his father because of the defamatory internet posts. The son said that after he experienced high-profile success, people would tell him they searched his name on Google and asked him about the post involving his father.
“Before, he was an outsized personality, full of swagger and self-confidence,” the judge wrote about the plaintiff. “After, he became a shell of his former self, prone to anger, reclusiveness, heavy drinking, and suicidal thoughts.”
Google, which is headquartered in California and incorporated under the laws of the state of Delaware, argued that Quebec defamation law didn’t apply to the case and that under U.S. law the company had no obligation to remove the link. The company also argued that even if Quebec law applied, under the Canada-United States-Mexico free trade agreement, it could not be held responsible.
The judge disagreed. Hussain said that while it is true that Google, under Quebec law, isn’t responsible for the content it links to – and isn’t required to monitor that content – the company has an obligation to act when it is informed that it’s facilitating access to illicit material.
Hussain awarded the man – who had originally been seeking $6 million in damages – $500,000 in moral damages. However, the judge declined to award any punitive damages on the grounds that Google had a good faith belief it was acting legally when it refused to remove the links in 2015.
The judge also singled out the two websites that published the original defamatory post and ordered Google to ensure that search results available in Quebec don’t include links to any pages on those sites that mention the plaintiff’s name.
The plaintiff had sought a permanent ban on the publication of his identity, but Hussain said he was inclined to reject that request. Instead, the judge granted a 45-day publication ban so that the man has time to appeal that part of the ruling to a higher court.