Google, Facebook, Twitter warned in privacy report

Summary:A UK parliamentary report has booted Google for its attitude towards court-ordered privacy injunctions, noting that it must comply with UK law or face a legislative battle.

A cross-bench committee of influential UK members of Parliament and peers have open fired at Google in a report --- while lightly poking at Facebook and Twitter in the process --- almost a year after a number of public figures and celebrities were granted court-issued worldwide gagging orders on their private lives.

The committee was formed, and today its report was published, after Twitter and Facebook users, and potentially Google itself broke a series of “super-injunctions”.

It comes after Max Mosely, the former Formula One chief, complained about the difficulties faced in getting videos removed from the Web.

Mosely was involved in a rather embarrassing sadomasochistic sex act involving several prostitutes by now defunct newspaper the News of the World, which shuttered after a series of separate and equally embarrassing phone hacking claims.

Super-injunctions are court-ordered gagging orders that are used often by celebrities, used to prevent a person or organisation disclosing information about them, whilst at the same time preventing disclosure of the gagging order itself.

The committee's idea is simple:

One of the problems with super-injunctions is that because these are secret court orders, news publications are often unaware of whether something they want to or have published is in breach of that court order. If news publications are informed that a super-injunction applies to 'Person X' for 'Vague Reason Y', they can be mindful enough not to publish it and keep it from the public eye.

This idea also applies to Facebook, Google, and Twitter as well.

Under UK law, these companies could be considered "secondary publishers". The report notes that Web users are responsible for their actions, particularly in light of the London riots. If the theory goes that these online social networks and search engines are "secondary publishers", they could also be in the lurch.

In allowing their users to post content, they could be liable too. It just hasn't been tested in court yet.

According to the BBC, Mosely confronted Google saying: "Here are the pictures. We know which ones they are. Simply programme your search engine so they don't appear."

Google said it could create algorithms to filter out content that is deemed illegal or in breach of a court order, but the search giant said it is not its job to monitor content on the Web.

The committee said its argument was "totally unconvincing".

The committee even threatened Google with legislation, for which as it has a UK-based office, it would be forced to comply with.

"Google and other search engines should take steps to ensure that their websites are not used as vehicles to breach the law and should actively develop and use such technology. We recommend that if legislation is necessary to require them to do so it should be introduced."

While Facebook and Twitter were mentioned in the report, the California-based search giant took most of the flak.

"We recommend that, when granting an injunction, courts should be proactive in directing the claimant to serve notice on Internet content platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook," the report said on page 55.

In a statement, Google said it already removes pages from its index deemed unlawful by the courts.

"We have a number of simple tools anyone can use to report such content, which we then remove from our index. Requiring search engines to screen the content of their web pages would be like asking phone companies to listen in on every call made across their networks for potentially suspicious activity," the statement read.

It's been a tough week for Google, and yet it's only Tuesday. Send your postcards of sympathy to 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway, Mountain View, CA.

Image source: Flickr.

Related:

Topics: Google, Browser, Legal, Social Enterprise

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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