The People vs Search Engines and Selfies

I did a large portion of my growing up in this wonderful time known as the Nineties. So naturally, I learned a great deal about life, love, and the law from Ally McBeal. Amid all of the star-crossed love affairs, surreal shenanigans and increasingly incongruous celebrity guest appearances, the part of the show that I found the least believable was the legal practice where the main character worked.

These people made their living, it seemed, by indulging their clients in the most frivolous, petty squabbles imaginable. As a teen viewer, I wanted Ally and her colleagues to be constantly representing people who had wrongly been accused of armed robbery or murder – how else did they expect to make a courtroom scene even remotely interesting?

Of course, the frivolous lawsuit isn’t limited to the realm of television. The Nineties are long over, and we are now living in a transparent world where we can stamp our feet, throw our toys out of the pram and have our day in court (with an audience, no less) over an array of disputes, which to an outsider would appear only slightly less ludicrous than a computer generated dancing baby. And the tech industry is no exception; as gadgets and social media continue to permeate our lives, there will always be a handful of people who take umbrage, not to mention legal action.

Last week, a court supported Hong Kong billionaire Albert Yeung’s lawsuit against Google. What’s his beef with the search giant? That pesky autocomplete function, which suggests “triad” as a related search term, thereby implying that tycoon Yeung has links to organised crime. Yeung, who owns an entertainment company which manages a number of celebrities, argues that such links, no matter how tenuous, have “gravely injured” his professional reputation.

Surely, though, nobody truly believes that Yeung is in cahoots with the triads? Therein lies the problem. While we may have no control over what is written on the internet, the unspoken (and oft unfollowed) commandment of the internet is Consume Responsibly. For every cynic there is a webizen who will believe anything they read online, and it is likely a fear of this un-discerning, gossip-spreading ignorance which is compelling Yeung to pursue this battle.

Google’s legal team protested on the grounds that Yeung should go directly to the websites and publishers which were the source of those search terms, but to no avail. “Any risk of misinformation can spread easily as users forage in the web,” says Judge Marlene Ng, who has dismissed Google’s objections and backed Yeung’s claim. “The art is to find the comfortable equilibrium in between.”

Elsewhere in amusing legal news, wildlife photographer David Slater is going ape over Wikipedia’s “communistic” approach to image copyrights. As Alexis Kleinman at The Huffington Post points out, “copyright law is boring. Unless there’s a monkey involved. Then it’s hilarious.” Remember the monkey selfie which went viral back in 2011? Of course you do. Slater, the owner of the infamously unattended camera which a crested black macaque used to take its own picture, is outraged that the photo is being displayed on Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons without his consent, as he believes the copyright belongs to him.

The folks at Wiki, however, maintain that the photo is in the public domain: “Under US law, copyright claims cannot vest in to non-human authors… It’s clear the monkey was the photographer. To claim copyright, the photographer would have had to make substantial contributions to the final image, and even then, they’d only have copyright for those alterations, not the underlying image. Because the monkey took the picture, it means there was no one on whom to bestow copyright, so the image falls into the public domain.”

Slater is nowhere near satisfied with that explanation. “[Wikipedia] is potentially being run by people with political agendas,” he says. “The people who are editing it could be a new Adolf Hitler or a new Stalin… They’re using whatever suits their agenda…. It’s important to tell people that Wikipedia should not be used as a source of truth.”

Slater is perhaps not as fair an example of #firstworldproblems as Yeung. While Yeung sincerely believes his reputation and even his livelihood may be threatened by his issues with Google, Slater has alienated himself from potential supporters and made his argument less credible through his willingness to invoke Godwin’s law, i.e. make an unwarranted Nazi comparison. And it’s not exactly as if the copyright status of a simian selfie is likely to arise as a frequent issue in modern life. Google’s autocomplete algorithms, on the other hand, have been the subject of legal action before; last year the search engine was ordered by a German court to remove autocomplete terms which implied a connection between a nutritional supplements company and fraud.

“The principle at stake here could have important ramifications for how Google may need to adapt more proactively its search engine in future,” says Justin Davidson, a partner at law firm Norton Rose Fulbright. So while an expensive legal battle might seem like overkill on the surface, Yeung’s case is likely to be cited as precedent in similar cases moving forward.

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