I’m not a huge fan of the legal process. I have been frivolously sued too many time to find it funny… indeed I received notice of a case where today which, once I picked myself up off the floor, I forwarded to my tame attorney to add to his to do list. The case of Beverley Stayart, a poster child of lost causes, rose to prominence again recently when she failed in her doomed-from-day-one suit against Google… again. What’s at issue here is the auto complete feature, which attempts to guess what you are looking for by adding popular or related searches to what you are typing. Years ago when this feature first came out, it inadvertently linked Ms. Stayart with the brand “Levitra” – which is of course a popular drug used in the management of ED. Why she was linked to it… who knows… but she was offended by the linkage and sued Yahoo in 2009 and appealed in 2010, then Google and others then Google again. She lost her last case a week or so back.
If you search for my name you will find it linked to the truck engine Duramax, and Wegnams the grocery store. In the first case a Tim Judd races for their team, the second Tim Judd is their IT manager. I have no problem with either and since I’m 5 of the top 6 results offered by Google, I don’t think the auto fill matters either way. Ms Stayarts case hinged on some pretty thin arguments which she has failed to convince any court of competent jurisdiction, and I’m pretty sure that in a country without contingency based lawyers (or her being CFO of a law firm which happens to share her last name), her case would never have made it past first base… allegedly.
The irony is, allegedly, because she brought all those cases to argue the point that her name has indeed become irrevocably linked to that auto suggestion… indeed the most likely thing she will ever be searched for or written about in authoritative places is exactly this case. Had she left it alone it would have probably auto corrected years ago. It’s Schrödinger’s Cat for the search industry. The more you protest, the more content about the issue is created, and the more you will be linked to exactly that issue. This feature has been used for evil purposes more recently where concerted efforts have been made to link a person or name with something very bad. Interestingly where this has been noted it tends to be deemed “spam” and goes away on it’s own reasonably quickly… human intervention, or just because stuff happens… who knows? What you can be 100% sure of, and I know this because I used to work for a big search engine and had exactly these conversations, is the moment the legal process is introduced then nothing will change or get better until the case gets decided. It is far better to suggest to a search engine that it is being spammy in a result, or point out how it’s being spammed. Search engineers are a very proud breed (they would have to be to have that little social life…just kidding guys). Point out a mistake or a problem nicely (say at a search technology conference or on twitter) and it mysteriously goes away… sue them and the grownups take over… and now you have to take on fair use and the first amendment… and you will never win.