Can I Sue Google?
Yes, you can sue Google, but only in rare situations. Under federal law, Google cannot be held legally responsible for content posted by third parties. This is called immunity. But Google's immunity is not unlimited. If it acts unlawfully in its own right, independent of merely posting third-party content, Google can be held legally responsible for its conduct.
However, you will have a fight on your hands. Google is a huge company with literally hundreds of lawyers on staff. If you plan on suing Google, you should strongly consider getting legal advice from an experienced consumer protection attorney.
What Is Google?
Google began in 1995 as the brainchild of two students at Stanford University. Today, Google is one of the world's largest tech companies. Its parent company, Alphabet, reported a net income for 2021 of more than $76 billion and is worth nearly $2 trillion. Google is a search giant — it controls 86% of the search engine market. According to many reports, it processes about 8.6 billion searches per day. The company has become such an ingrained part of our lives that the word “google" is now a verb in the dictionary.
The main way Google makes money is through advertisements. Advertisers submit ads to Google that include a list of keywords relating to their product, service, or business. When you google those keywords, the ad appears on the retrieved web page. The advertiser pays Google every time a user clicks on the ad and is redirected to the advertiser's website.
Why Might You Sue Google?
There are all sorts of reasons why you may want to sue Google. You may be searching the internet one day and come across a disturbingly unflattering picture of yourself. You may be a business owner who receives an unfair negative review. Google might be sending users to a website that says false things about you.
But is Google legally responsible for any of that?
Section 230 Immunity
Federal law protects Google and other tech giants from lawsuits based on content posted by third parties. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is one of the most important internet laws in the country. Passed in 1996 (a year after Google's predecessor was formed), section 230's purpose was to encourage free speech and innovation on the internet. If online service providers were legally liable for content posted by other internet users, they would be forced to heavily regulate and censor content. This would have inhibited, if not prevented, the internet's development.
So Congress gave the tech companies immunity. Under section 230, no online computer service can be treated as the “publisher or speaker" of information posted by a third party. Congress also granted Google the freedom to remove “objectionable" content without fear of lawsuits.
This grant of immunity is sweeping. Every type of lawsuit that would be based on Google being the publisher or speaker of a statement is barred. That includes most state law tort claims, including defamation, false advertising, unfair competition, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The legal reality is that Google generally cannot be held liable for objectionable content that appears in its search results.
Things You Can Sue Google For
But Google's immunity is not unlimited. You can sue Google if:
- Google is the original creator of the objectionable content
- Google contributes to intellectual property infringement
- You have direct business dealings with Google
- One of the extremely limited exceptions to section 230 applies
FindLaw discusses each of these exceptions below.
Content Google Creates
The first reason you may be able to sue Google is for the content it creates. If Google were to change a material fact in an article someone else posted, Google could be held responsible for that change.
Intellectual Property Infringement
The second reason is if Google is a direct or contributory infringer of your intellectual property rights. Intellectual property law gives authors, artists, inventors, and other creators rights in their work. They can sell, lend, or license their work to others. Generally, if you use their work without permission, you violate their intellectual property rights.
Google may not be a “publisher or speaker," but it can be held liable for intellectual property infringement as a distributor. Distributors can be found liable for infringement if they have reason to know that content infringes your intellectual property rights but they distribute it anyway. If you inform Google that content infringes your intellectual property rights and Google doesn't remove it, then you would have grounds to sue.
Direct Business Dealings
A third exception to the immunity rule is if you have direct business dealings with Google. Suppose you have a Google account. You write your doctoral thesis on Google Docs and save it on your Google Drive, for which you pay a monthly fee. Somehow, Google loses your thesis. You would be able to sue Google.
However, when you sign up for a Google account, you agree to Google's Terms of Service. Those terms contain an entire section of disclaimers, and they purport to limit Google's financial liability to the greater of either $200 or the total fees you paid to use the relevant Google service in the 12 months before the dispute.
Further, according to those terms, any disputes you may have can only be brought in state or federal court in Santa Clara County, California. Suing Google for $200, even if you live in California, is probably not worth it.
Statutory Exceptions to Section 230
There are three statutory exceptions to section 230:
- Child pornography
- Sex trafficking
- Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986
These exceptions are extremely narrow and do not apply to most disputes you might have with Google.
Government Action Against Google
You may find it frustrating that Google and other Big Tech companies can't be held liable for harms that others commit on their platforms. But this doesn't mean that Google is getting off the hook entirely. Various state governments and the federal government, on behalf of consumers, have pursued litigation against Google. Here are some examples:
For example, in January 2020, the attorney general for the District of Columbia, Karl Racine, brought an action to hold Google accountable for misleading and violating the privacy of its users in connection with data collection.
According to the suit, Google deceived consumers about how their personal data, including their location data and location history, were collected, stored, and used. This impacted not only users of Android smartphones, but also consumers who used Google accounts and products, like Chrome, on Apple devices. The attorneys general for Indiana, Texas, and Washington state filed similar actions in state courts. Arizona also has an action against Google in court.
These cases specifically challenge how Google obtained location and private information. They allege that Google relies on “dark patterns"— deceptive and manipulative practices designed to influence users' online decisions — to prompt users to enable location tracking in certain apps by claiming that they won't function properly without enabling location information. Google Spokesperson Jose Castaneda responded that the suits were based on inaccurate claims and outdated information.
Texas also brought an antitrust lawsuit against Google. Antitrust law aims to protect consumers from companies that become so dominant in a market that they are able to force out the competition and charge higher prices. Texas claims that Google has that power over the systems that allow publishers to auction off ad space to marketers.
These are just a couple of the lawsuits that regulators have brought to limit the power of Big Tech and social media companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple. In fact, state and federal regulators have reportedly filed dozens of antitrust, consumer protection, privacy, and trade lawsuits in an attempt to change business practices or break up these internet companies.
If You Do Want To Sue Google, Consult a Lawyer
Google is a powerful company. If you do believe you have grounds to sue them, you would benefit from consulting an experienced consumer protection attorney. Google has an army of lawyers on its side, and you should seriously consider hiring one to fight for you.
Under the applicable statute of limitations, you have a limited amount of time in which to file a lawsuit. How long depends on the nature of your claim. If you plan on bringing a claim against Google, make sure you act promptly.