Locksmiths try again to sue Google over fake local listings

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Search engines can assert immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

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Here’s a familiar story: a group of locksmiths has filed a class action lawsuit against Google, Microsoft and Yahoo. They claim the search engines (Google in particular) are deliberately “flooding” organic results with “scam locksmith listings” known to be false.

They argue the fake listings force legitimate locksmiths to buy ads to gain access to customers who would otherwise see them via organic search results. The case is in Federal District Court in Washington, D.C.

These are some of the alleged facts from the complaint:

Defendants knowingly and deliberately flood organic search results displayed in response to queries such as “locksmith” (and related terms) with scam locksmith listings they know: 1) do not exist at all, or at least not at the locations indicated, 2) operate for the purpose of defrauding the consumer public, 3) are not licensed in jurisdictions mandating locksmith licensing, 4) are unregistered to do business in jurisdictions (such as DC) requiring business registration.

Defendants flood the market with fictitious listings to dilute Plaintiffs’ and other legitimate locksmiths’ listing in the organic and map results to the point of obscurity, thereby compelling legitimate locksmiths to pay Defendants for paid advertised results merely to be seen by the same prospective customers.

(emphasis added)

Among the legal claims being made by the locksmiths are: conspiracy, fraud, unfair competition and other claims under various state and federal laws.

The plaintiffs argue that Google “is fully aware of the nation-wide scam problem and is doing little to address the issue” because it and the other search engines financially benefit from the presence of these scam listings. They further claim that most jurisdictions have licensing requirements for locksmiths and that those rules have been willfully disregarded by the search engines.

(Google and the other engines are certainly aware of the issue because they’ve been sued over the same issue before.)

Plaintiffs represent a potential nationwide class and are asking for Google to stop showing results, listings and map pins for locksmiths that aren’t licensed in the jurisdiction. They’re also asking the search engines to “cease and desist publishing paid advertisements for unlicensed locksmiths in jurisdictions requiring locksmith licensing.”

Damages sought by plaintiffs include “lost good will and ongoing client relationships” as well as “lost publicity.” The plaintiffs are also seeking punitive damages.

While it’s easy to sympathize with the aggrieved locksmiths, the law favors Google, Bing and Yahoo. They will likely be able to avoid liability under internet-publisher immunity provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.


About The Author

Greg Sterling is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog, Screenwerk, about connecting the dots between digital media and real-world consumer behavior. He is also VP of Strategy and Insights for the Local Search Association. Follow him on Twitter or find him at Google+.


 

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