Appeals Court Sides With Search Engines In Battle Over 'Scam' Listings

Siding with tech companies, a federal appellate court has ruled that Google, Microsoft and Yahoo are immune from liability for allegedly posting listings by “scammers.”

The ruling, issued Friday by a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, stems from a lawsuit by a group of 14 locksmiths who sued the tech companies over search listings for unlicensed locksmiths.

The locksmiths that sued, including Baldino's Lock & Key of Newington, Virginia, claimed that Google, Yahoo and Bing populate their results with listings by unlicensed locksmiths in order to convince licensed locksmiths to pay for ads. Baldino's and the others alleged that the search companies' alleged actions amounted to the "abuse of monopoly control."

U.S. District Court Judge Trevor McFadden in Washington, D.C. dismissed the claims last year January. He ruled that Section 230 of Communications Decency Act protects the search engines from liability for returning links to unlicensed businesses. That law immunizes web platforms for displaying material created by third parties. McFadden said in his ruling that it was the “scam locksmiths” -- and not the search companies -- that provided the objectionable information.

Baldino's and the other locksmiths then asked the 4th Circuit to revive the claims. The companies contended that they should have been allowed to prove that the search engines were responsible for the listings.

The locksmiths raised several arguments, including that the tech companies knew that they were displaying links to sites operated by unlicensed locksmiths. The appellate judges rejected that position, noting that Section 230 protects intermediaries even when they know content created by third parties is false.

Baldino's and the others also contended that Google, Yahoo and Microsoft were liable because they “enhanced” the unlicensed locksmiths' listings by showing their locations on maps.

The appellate judges rejected that argument as well, ruling that the underlying information -- in this case, the businesses and their addresses -- was still provided by third parties.

“Were the display of this kind of information not immunized, nothing would be: every representation by a search engine of another party’s information requires the translation of a digital transmission into textual or pictorial form,” Circuit Judge Merrick Garland wrote in a unanimous decision.

Baldino's previously sued Google over its search results. That case was dismissed in 2015 by U.S. District Court Judge Claude Hilton in the Eastern District of Virginia. Hilton ruled that Google wasn't responsible for any misrepresentations in its search results.

Baldino's then appealed to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld Hilton's ruling. "The locksmiths who generated the information ... are solely responsible for making any faulty or misleading representations or descriptions of fact," the appellate panel wrote.

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