Should search engines be liable for leaked nude celeb photos?

Google appears to be moving quickly to avoid being pinned against the ropes in a massive lawsuit over the recent leaks of private photos of various celebrities. If things continue to a courtroom, they could be facing a $100M loss.

Google is staring down the barrel of a $100 million gun in form of a lawsuit, threatened by those whose photographs were ultimately compromised in the iCloud security breach that landed thousands of images on social networks, search engines, and everywhere else across the internet.

The company announced that they had already deleted “tens of thousands” of the inappropriate and leaked images of Jenifer Lawrence, Kim Kardashian, and many more Hollywood starlets.

However, the Attorney’s representing the Hollywood stars cites that the action didn’t happen quickly enough and that the company benefited financially from the leak. Marty Singer, the attorney in question, claimed that Google ignored initial requests to take the personal photos and data down, before actually beginning to afterward.

Remember, the lawsuit in question is not over the failure of the iCloud to be secure enough to protect the data stored from the phones, but for Google’s failure to act quickly and decisively enough to eliminate them once the horses were out of the barn. I’ve yet to hear a satisfying explanation as to why Google is culpable in any way in this action. The web is a global block party with very little in the way of gate guards, and you never know who is going to show up. It seems to me that there are five parties involved from beginning to end in such “exposing” incidents:

– The person who originally created the content (by taking the pictures and storing them)
– The persons who hacked into the storage medium and captured them
– The owner of the site where they were originally uploaded and made available on the web
– The automated search engine spider which located and tagged the images to be listed in search returns
– The persons who sought out the images to download and save them

Scanning this list, I see only three entities who knowingly were involved in the handling of the images. The content creator is doubtless guilty of poor judgement, but not of any malicious intent. The hacker clearly acted with malice and, I assume, broke some laws in the process. The person who sought out and downloaded the image might be guilty of something beyond voyeurism, depending on the age of the subject of the photos or a few other factors, but I’m guessing that varies from state to state.

Then we come to the two machine entities involved.. The first is the hacker’s provider (which may or may not be one in the same) who I suppose might bear some responsibility for what shows up on their site. But doesn’t every provider have a terms of service agreement with their subscribers regarding the uploading of illegal material which places the blame on the subscriber?

The last one on the list is the search engine. And hopefully it won’t come as too much of a shock to anyone to learn that Google doesn’t have a huge room full of people sitting and scanning every site in the world, picking out which articles, pictures or fascinating recipes for fish tacos on various blogs to select for inclusion on search returns. Once the pictures are out there and showing up, Google also faces a daunting task to find and block them all even if they wanted to try. A desirable photo such as that of Kaley Cuoco with her shirt off (bad move, Penny) is going to go viral in seconds and be replicated on more sites than you can count. Google would be playing whack-a-mole on a cosmic scale to keep up with and purge them all. But for this they are the target of the lawsuit?

And what of those unfortunate young ladies who are not famous and can’t afford a high powered lawyer? I have zero doubt that the web is littered with countless “revenge porn” pictures from peeping toms and former lovers, or simply willingly given photo ops from foolish young people who later wish they hadn’t done it. Is Google legally and financially responsible for whatever mental trauma they all suffered? If that’s the case, we may as well shut down all search engines now and turn the web back into the ghost town it once was.

UPDATE: (Jazz) Attorney Doug Mataconis seems to agree with my assessment.

In this case, of course, the Plaintiffs wouldn’t be proceeding under European law, they would proceeding under various privacy laws, including the California Celebrities Right’s Act, which gives celebrities and their estates certain rights to control how their image is used in public. Even under this law, though, it’s hard to see where Google’s liability for anything that isn’t under its control would lie. Again, we’d still be dealing with the fact that Google did not steal the images, was not involved in security for the service where the image was stored, and did not post the images elsewhere. All of those actions were done by third parties that Google has no real control over. Even when the images are posted on a site that it does have control over, such as YouTube, it likely wouldn’t be aware of that fact until someone notified them of the fact. How that leads to liability either in the legal or the moral sense of the word is quite baffling.