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Beverly Stayart's Plan to Sue the Internet for Privacy Backfires

By Robyn Hagan Cain on March 06, 2013 3:01 PM

Beverly Stayart is annoyed that online search returns for her name abbreviated name -- "bev stayart" -- may lead to a search assist for "bev stayart levitra." Which could then take the searcher to a website for erectile dysfunction drugs. In fact, Bev -- a Wisconsin resident -- is so upset about her name being connected with ED meds that she sued the Internet (well, technically, a few search engines) for misappropriating her name. Several times. She has yet to win.

Stayart's problem in her latest appeal -- according to the Seventh Circuit -- is that she hasn't "articulated a set of facts that can plausibly lead to relief under Wisconsin's misappropriation laws" because the use of her name falls within the public interest and incidental use exceptions to the law. The bigger issue for Stayart is that the more she demands respect for her privacy rights, the more her name is associated ED drugs. That's just how the Internet works.

Court documents explain that Stayart describes herself as "widely known on the Internet as a respected scholar of genealogy and a 'positive and wholesome' leader in the animal rights movement." Oh, and she says she's the only "Bev Stayart" on the Internet. If you search for Bev online, you might come to the same conclusion. (We clicked through 30 pages of returns about her search engine lawsuits before growing bored.)

Stayart's suit against Google alleged the company violated Wisconsin's right of privacy statute by misappropriating her name to generate financial revenue through online trade and advertising. She also claimed common law misappropriation. The district court granted Google's motion to dismiss with prejudice, noting that Google doesn't create the searches; it merely reports the results of its search of publicly available websites.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court, concluding that Stayart's situation falls within Wisconsin's newsworthiness or public interest exception. And that, ironically, is Stayart's own doing. The appellate court wrote:

The search term "bev stayart levitra" is a matter of public interest primarily because Stayart has made it one -- and, given the current lawsuit, ensures that it remains so. In January 2010, -- four month before she field this lawsuit -- she filed a lawsuit against Yahoo! in federal court, alleging that its search assist feature suggested the phrase "bev stayart levitra" when she types "bev stayart" ... In her complaint in the instant case, Stayart alleges that "Google's misappropriation of Bev Stayart's name and likeness began at least as early as February 1, 2010 ..." the month after she sued Yahoo! over the same search phrase. And all the searches she attaches to her complaint were executed in April 2010.

Suing over a search return seems like a bad idea. Isn't it easier for a would-be litigant to outsmart the search assist by blogging about terms she would rather have associated with her name?

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