A federal appellate court handed online mapping platforms a major victory Friday finding that they can’t be held liable for using neutral algorithms to plot locations for businesses that don’t provide specific addresses.
Locksmiths sued the companies that operate Google, Bing and Yahoo in federal court in Washington, D.C., in 2016 claiming the websites overstepped immunities laid out for interactive computer services under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act by assigning sham competitors actual physical addresses on their mapping applications.
But on Friday the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld a lower court decision dismissing the case finding that the companies’ algorithms provided “neutral means” and an “automated editorial act” protected from liability under Section 230.
“The underlying information is entirely provided by the third party, and the choice of presentation does not itself convert the search engine into an information content provider,” wrote Chief Judge Merrick Garland for the unanimous three-judge panel. “Indeed, were the display of this kind of information not immunized, nothing would be: every representation by a search engine of another party’s information requires the translation of a digital transmission into textual or pictorial form.”
The panel, however, stopped short of a position advocated by the tech companies’ lawyer at oral argument, Kathleen McCarthy of King & Spalding, who contended that the companies would enjoy immunity even if they completely fabricated the locksmiths’ addresses. “That assertion is plainly inconsistent with the scope of the immunity that Congress has conferred,” wrote Garland, adding that it was not the sort of “information provided by another information content provider” that falls under the scope Section 230 protections.
McCarthy didn’t immediately respond to a message Friday. She and her firm represented Google LLC while Microsoft Corp. was represented by Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe and Oath Holdings Inc., formerly known as Yahoo, was represented by Morrison & Foerster.
The locksmiths’ lawyer, Barry Roberts of Roberts Attorneys P.A., was with a client and not immediately available for comment.
In Friday’s decision, Garland, as he did at oral argument in the case last year, noted that the locksmiths’ complaint said that the search engines had been “tricked” by the sham locksmiths about their location.
“To recognize that Google has been ‘tricked’ is to acknowledge that its algorithm neutrally translates both legitimate and scam information in the same manner,” Garland wrote. “Because the defendants employ a ‘neutral means’ and an ‘automated editorial act’ to convert third-party location and area-code information into map pinpoints, those pinpoints come within the protection of § 230,” he added.
Garland was joined in his opinion by Judges Patricia Millett and Harry Edwards.