Waging legal war against search engines

Admit it. We’ve all done a vanity search. You know, when you type your name into a search engine and hit “Enter.” But, when Bev Stayart did, she didn’t like what turned up. So she sued?-?several times.

The Wisconsin woman filed her first lawsuit in federal court in 2009. Stayart alleged the search results for “bev stayart” contained links to pornographic websites, online pharmacies promoting erectile dysfunction (“ED”) drugs, and an adult-oriented online dating service. That meant, she said, that Yahoo! Inc., Overture Services, Inc., and Various, Inc. intentionally used her name without authorization. At the time, Yahoo was the internet’s second-largest search engine, while Overture and Various operated the AltaVista search engine and Adult Friend Finder, respectively.

Stayart had worked for financial institutions and was active in animal protection programs and genealogical research. She was a “sophisticated, well-educated, and highly intelligent professional woman, with important and valuable friends and business contacts throughout the world,” her lawsuit said. She wanted damages for trademark infringement, claiming the search results improperly indicated she endorsed pornography and online pharmaceuticals.

The trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. Pointing out that trademark law protects commercial interests, the courts said Stayart didn’t have a commercial interest in her name. Moreover, U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa stated, an “emotional desire to prevent others from using her name” wasn’t protected by federal trademark law.

In January 2010, while that appeal was pending, Stayart again sued Yahoo. This time she alleged that when she began entering her name in Yahoo’s search engine, the site’s “search assist” automatically displayed the phrase “bev stayart levitra.” She claimed the company falsely implied she endorsed Levitra, an ED drug, to increase its web traffic. She alleged the unauthorized use of her name to advertise Levitra violated her privacy rights under Wisconsin law.

This time U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman dismissed her case. Adelman said the court lacked didn’t have jurisdiction and, even if it did, Stayart’s “allegations do not suggest that Yahoo did anything other than search publicly available materials on the internet and return the results of the search. This type of activity is entirely lawful.”

Stayart filed a similar lawsuit against Google in April 2010. Again, she alleged that typing her name into Google displayed the phrase “bev stayart levitra.” She claimed search results using that phrase not only produced sites advertising medications but also suggested terms such as “bev stayart viagra” and “bev stayart cialis,” references to other ED medications. Stayart also asserted that Google earned advertising revenue because “sponsored links” appeared at the top of search results using such queries.

As with Yahoo, Stayart alleged Google was using her name without authorization to promote the sale of erectile dysfunction drugs. She also alleged Google was using her name to sell “sponsored links.” Both violated her right to privacy under Wisconsin law. Judge Adelman again dismissed the lawsuit.

Adelman said Stayart’s allegations only “make clear that Google is merely reporting the results of its search of other websites.” As for the “sponsored links” claim, the judge noted that it was “obvious that advertisers pay Google to display their website whenever a user searches for ‘levitra,'” even if the search terms included other words or names.
Stayart’s lawsuit against Yahoo over the phrase “bev stayart levitra” played a role when the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected her claims against Google. The court pointed out there was a public interest exception to invasion of privacy claims. Because there’s a public interest in court documents, the court reasoned, internet searches using key terms related to them are likewise protected.

“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,” the court wrote in its March 2013 decision. Seven months later, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.

Neil Gaiman, April 16, 2010

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