The rise of Google has been well documented. Created by Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1996 whilst the pair undertook PhDs at Stanford University, what started as a research project concerned with making search engines more efficient has now grown into a hi-tech behemoth with revenues in 2009 exceeding twenty three billion dollars.
Google’s core offering remains, of course, online advertising. However, the company is so innovative that the law is often having to play “catch-up”. Indeed not only is Google re-drawing the legal landscape but also that of the earth.
We will take a brief look at some of the major issues that have arisen.
Google, through its AdWords programme, allows advertisers to ‘purchase’ keywords to place their website at or near the top of the results page when an internet user searches for that keyword. This led to complaints that Google was enabling trademark violation, as ‘Company A’ could purchase a keyword identical to a registered trademark of ‘Company B’, enabling the former to benefit by appearing in its competitor’s search results. Designer label Louis Vuitton took legal action against Google, but in March 2010 the European Court of Justice (“ECJ”) ruled that Google had “not infringed trademark law by allowing advertisers to purchase keywords corresponding to their competitors’ trademarks”.
Although Google was exonerated, the ECJ did intimate that advertisers themselves could be guilty of trademark violation, and in October Interflora commenced proceedings against Marks & Spencer over a similar use of the AdWords programme. While this case is yet to be decided, the fact that large companies are litigating over a Google service shows how influential the company has become, not just in the internet search engine market, but as a huge player in global advertising.
The controversial Street View project – where users can travel virtually down almost any street in the UK and other cities across the world – has recently suffered some unwelcome publicity after it emerged that the cars deployed to capture images of street scenes were also grabbing individuals’ personal data from unsecured wireless networks. This led to the Information Commissioner’s Office censuring Google for a ‘serious breach’ of the Data Protection Act, though it escaped a fine by persuading the ICO that the breach was accidental and would be immediately rectified. Nevertheless, this incident demonstrates the scale and reach of Google’s services, and the potential ramifications when hi-tech companies make mistakes.
In perhaps the most extraordinary example of Google’s impact, an inadvertent mistake on its Google Maps function has been attributed as the cause for Nicaragua ‘invading’ Costa Rican territory. The Google map of the Nicaragua/Costa Rica border (based on information supplied by the US State Department) showed land widely believed to be Costa Rican soil as being part of Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan army used this as legal justification for its view that the land was Nicaraguan and sent troops to the region. Although the Organisation of American States has insisted that the troops be withdrawn, debate over the region’s future has intensified, with Nicaragua refusing to remove their troops and the dispute threatening to expand across the continent as neighbouring countries take sides.