As recent events see Google at the centre of a few potentially damaging court cases, is their iron clad grip on the world of search results really under threat? We take a look at both sides of the argument.

1. Google Spain vs. Spain

Mentioned in a My Five I wrote back in May, the case against Google and Spain sets the tone for everything that has followed since, making it a key moment in the history of Google.

In brief, a European court ruled that Google must delete “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” data from search results when a member of the public requests it. And why? Because Mario Costeja González wanted a notice from 1998 about his house auction removed from search results. The court ruled against Google and under existing EU data protection laws Google had to remove search listings to links on two pages that appear in the results for Marios name.

This ‘right to be forgotten’ then resulted in Google removing an awful lot of search results in order to get through the backlog of requests that they now have to comply with. Disclaimers were added to search result pages saying that your search results may be incomplete because some of them may have been removed. This case set a precedent for Google removing search listings, and anyone who has ever done anything embarrassing which appears when you Google their name gave a big sigh of relief.

The debate on this one: one side argues that freedom of information should mean you get to see everything, and by censoring and therefore manipulating search results, people get a blinkered view of the world. The other side argues that Google shouldn’t be allowed to display information which is irrelevant and could potentially ruin someone’s career, credit rating or love life.

2. Google vs. Germany

Google vs Germany came to light only a couple of weeks ago, after German justice minister Heiko Maas called upon Google to become more transparent by disclosing exactly how it ranks search results. The German government have an antitrust case against Google, and have escalated this by the request for the algorithm. This will obviously never happen.

And before you think I’ve dismissed this too easily, if you were Larry Page would you just lie down and handover the source of all your wealth and power? The fun in this one though is the debate behind if it could happen – and what would happen it it went through.

Firstly: One of the main issues behind the German request was that the Germans think Google is putting their own affiliate links at the top of the page. Should this be allowed? One side says no – companies work really hard to jump through the hoops that Google lays out, spending vast amounts of money and time to be the first result. Google should not be bumping them down for their own results.

On the other hand, Google is huge – and has earned the right to do whatever they want to search results. If you don’t like it – feel free to use Bing… Google is a business which offers a free service to billions of people – we shouldn’t expect this to come without a catch. The best defence for Google comes from their executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, who wrote this statement which is well worth a read.

Secondly: Should they have to reveal their algorithm to the German Government? If they did, the whole SEO industry would surely fall to its knees soon after, with spammers adopting the winning tactics to see their crappy listings skyrocket. I like that my search results are always relevant to my query, and I don’t believe this would be the case if everyone knew the algorithm. The flip side of the argument is pretty much the same as the first point above – if Google doesn’t have anything to hide then why shouldn’t they reveal their algorithm? We all have a right to information after all.

3. Google vs. naked celebrities

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock you’ve probably heard about the phone hacking naked celebrity scandal. And however you feel about these images – a PR stunt, a sloppy place to store private pictures or a genuine invasion of privacy – there is one thing we can all agree on: it wasn’t Googles fault. But last week a number of undisclosed female victims of the photo hacking scandal threatened to sue Google for $100 million dollars because Google failed to delete the links and therefore enabled people to see the images, breaching the privacy of the celebrities.

This opens up a whole new level of responsibility for Google. Do they have a responsibility for the content displayed? Or does the fact that Google is an automated system mean they should escape all culpability?

Google is not the owner of this information, it is not hosting the sites, endorsing the sites or in anyway related to the pictures being leaked and shown upon the sites. All they’ve done is allow people to see what is already there. However the flipside of this argument comes from the voice of the hacked celebrities, entertainment lawyer Marty Singer, who said in his letter to Google “Google knows the images are hacked stolen property, private and confidential photos and videos unlawfully obtained and posted by pervert predators who are violating the victims’ privacy rights, yet Google has taken little or no action to stop these outrageous violations.”

He continues, alleging that Google is “making millions and profiting from the victimisation of women,” but says that, “because the victims are celebrities with valuable publicity rights you do nothing – nothing but collect millions of dollars in advertising revenue … as you seek to capitalise on this scandal rather than quash it…. Google has turned a blind eye while its sites repeatedly exploit and victimise these women.”

A Google spokesperson came back with “We’ve removed tens of thousands of pictures – within hours of the requests being made – and we have closed hundreds of accounts. The Internet is used for many good things. Stealing people’s private photos is not one of them”.

4. Google vs. ….?

The future of Google is going to largely hinge on the outcome of the German algorithm case, because as with the EU ruling in Spain, once one barrier goes down, the rest will surely tumble soon after. That case could possibly be the beginning of the end for the hold that Google has over the world of search.

In regards to the celebrities, for a company worth $198 billion, $100 million is just a drop in the pond – and personally, I don’t see that case being won by the celebrities. However if it is, Google will need to tighten the screws. You might recall one of the times that music, videos games or TV were named as being responsible for a tragic event or criminal act. Google should take note – because if these court cases are setting the tone of things to come then Google could be held responsible for the listings they display. Suddenly every time you hit that little grey ‘Google Search’ button, Google might find themselves completely liable for your future actions.