Eric Goldman discusses reports of oral argument in the Kinderstart v. Google case; the judge's comments about misleadingness hint that the false advertising claim may survive. I wish I'd written up my thoughts earlier, because then I'd seem prescient: I didn't think Google had a clear knockout on the false advertising claims. One of Kinderstart’s arguments is that Google falsely claims to consumers to have the best search engine because of its sophisticated, inexorable algorithms. Then it jiggers the results of those algorithms, secretly, to punish certain sites.
I see no reason why, in theory, this could not found a false advertising claim. (I do think materiality would be an upwards climb.) Google's statements about its ranking system, if made to attract consumers and advertisers, were commercial speech. And consumers, at least, were harmed if they didn’t get what they were expecting; it is a basic principle of modern consumer protection law that people are entitled to the truth, even when they’re ultimately satisfied with a product advertised under false pretenses. The remaining question is whether that principle applies to ad-supported businesses, since consumers “paid” Google only in their time, and advertisers pay Google for eyeballs. My consumer-protectionist heart tells me it should, though I admit I’m unaware of relevant precedent.
Google’s best argument is thus that Kinderstart is the wrong plaintiff. Google’s main overall claim is that rankings are opinions, thus can’t be true or false, but even if that’s true, Google’s statements about how it derives its rankings surely can be true or false. (Imagine if a retail store claimed to stock only garments purchased by expert Parisian buyers, but in fact stocked whatever the garment factories had as overstock.) Kinderstart, however, may not have been harmed by any falsehood, since it seems hard to connect its Adsense revenues, or lack thereof, with Google’s misrepresentations. If anything, consumers fooled into trusting Google would seem to increase Adsense revenue, all else being equal.
Google claims First Amendment protection for its rankings, but First Amendment protection for books doesn't mean I can advertise a copy of The Da Vinci Code and instead deliver a copy of the Bible. (I am simplifying: One might credibly argue that Google's commercial speech about a product itself protected by the First Amendment deserves special leeway, but Google's First Amendment arguments to date haven't taken that tack.)
There is one variant of the false advertising claim that could involve direct harm to Kinderstart, though it would also make Google’s First Amendment arguments relevant. If Google represents that the first few search results are the best matches to a query, consumers may believe this and not bother going to low-ranked Kinderstart. This is true even if the first few results aren’t that useful; consumers may trust Google, and think that, if the first few results are bad, the next will be even worse. A similar theory led to success for the plaintiff in a case involving false claims of waterproofness – rather than purchasing a truly waterproof suit, the court reasoned, a consumer disgusted with the failure of a suit allegedly “the best waterproof suit available” might just assume that all waterproofing technology was inadequate. W.L. Gore & Assocs., Inc. v. Totes, Inc., 788 F.Supp. 800 (D.Del.1992).
Google's motion papers make some typically aggressive arguments. For instance, Google seeks dismissal of the complaint under
Another provision of the anti-SLAPP law provides that commercial speech based on the creation, dissemination, or promotion of a literary work gets full anti-SLAPP coverage. Even though ads are protected by copyright, one