Beverly Hills Small Claims Court forces Google to remove documents from their Web database, including a Public Domain Government Document on a Government Website (namely a US Bankruptcy Court Order)

Lately, Google has been involved in a lot of lawsuits: book publishers, DOJ subpoena, Microsoft, France….

However, last month, in a novel twist, a plaintiff, Mark Anderson, convinced the Beverly Hills Small Claims Court to direct Google to remove a number of documents that mention him from the Google index, including newspaper articles and public documents such as a U.S. Bankruptcy Court order.

Specifically, the Court ordered Google to remove “all references to [1 individual and 3 companies] from the Google search engines and search results.” This is not the removal of the documents from the Internet, just from the Google search results. Attached to the order was an exhibit listing the Web pages to be removed from the Google index. Chilling Effects has posted the court order and exhibit on its Web site.

Here are some of the sites that had their pages removed from the Google SERPs, per the California small claims court order.

Global Water Technologies > News. A quick look at Google’s cache shows that this page is not in their index. On a practical level, the removal may not represent that significant a development since the latest news release posted on this page is from November 10, 2004. However, as a theoretical matter, if a plaintiff can convince a court to order Google to remove a third party company’s press release page from its index, the potential for harm is significant, in terms of investor relations and marketing. This also raises the question whether any of the third party Web sites were notified that their pages would be removed from the Google index. If not, a company’s Web site could be de-indexed and they may not even know about it.

DefaultRisk.com > 2nd Qtr 2003. DefaultRisk.com bills itself as a resource for managers of credit risk measurement and modeling. The offending portion on this page is an 85 word summary of a bankruptcy filing. The summary was factual in nature and did not include editorial comments on the parties or the merits of the bankruptcy filing. Again, a cache of this page is missing from the Google index.

Denver Business Journal > Global Water Technologies files Chapter 11. This one is even more amazing! An article from a reputable business newspaper vanishes from Google’s index. If you read the article, it too is factual in nature.

U.S. Bankruptcy Court – District of Colorado > In re: Global Water Technologies, Inc. If removing a business newspaper’s Web page from the Google index amazed me, then removing a United States Bankruptcy Court order from the Google SERPs absolutely shocked me. The usual reasons for removing a page from the Google index probably involve trademark or copyright issues. But, here, none of these issues should exist with a court order. We’ve all heard of opinions being depublished, but de-indexed? Think about that. A state small claims court de-indexes a federal bankruptcy court’s order. We wonder whether the plaintiff will sue the US Federal Courts to compel them to remove the document from their site as well.

EDGAR Online > Secured Term Promissory Note. This promissory note was an exhibit to a Form 8-K filing. In other words, an ordinary business contract. But, the note involved a “Company Who Must Not Be Named,” so it too was removed from Google’s SERPs.

So, having verified that these Web pages are not in the Google index, let’s take a look at the other two search engines. I ran a search query on Yahoo! using the first set of terms listed in the exhibit to the court order. Surprisingly, on the first page, three of the above Web pages were listed, including those from Global Water Technologies, DefaultRisk.com, and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court – District of Colorado. So, it appears that Yahoo! escaped unscathed for now.

Next, I ran the same search on MSN. Interestingly, the first result was the court order and exhibit on Chilling Effects. However, none of the five results mentioned in the Google analysis above appeared on the first page. I did spot the Web page from DefaultRisk.com on page 3 of MSN’s results. To test whether MSN had removed certain pages from its listings or whether MSN was just using a different algorithm, I ran some additional search queries.

When I search for “He Who Must Not Be Named” on the Global Water Technologies domain, MSN tells me, “We couldn’t find any results.” The same search for news on that domain yields GWT – In the News, which is one of the pages stricken from the Google index. This shows that the Web page was not removed from the MSN index. However, why wasn’t this Web page returned as a match for my earlier search? Looking at the cache reveals that the individual’s name does appear on that page. And, if I run a search for George Kast, another name that appears on that news page, MSN does return that page as a matching result. So, it appears that while MSN has not removed that Web page from its index, all the words on that page are not fully indexed either.

Since my earlier MSN searches were inconclusive, I ran another test. This time, I searched for one of the company names on the U.S. Bankruptcy Court – District of Colorado’s Web site. The court order appeared as the lone match. So, that didn’t clear things up a bit. If MSN is removing results from its SERPs, I hope that it would adopt Google’s practice of notifying users that certain results have been removed pursuant to a legal request and adding a hyperlink to the request on Chilling Effects. That way, MSN users will know whether to try another search engine to see if more complete results are available.