If a blogger writes a scathing review of a restaurant, it's natural that the headline would match the tone of the article. After all, a unique, accurate title is part of Google's official advice for improving the positioning of a webpage in its search results.
But a blogger in France called “L'Irrégulière” was ordered to pay damages and court fees totaling 2,500 euros (3,400 U.S. dollars) for doing just that after the restaurant filed a complaint.
Appalled by what she considered to be unwelcoming staff and poor service during a meal at the end of August 2013 in Cap Ferret, the blogger published a biting review of Il Giardino on her French-language literary blog Cultur'elle. The article, titled “The place to avoid in Cap Ferret: Il Giardino”, ranked highly in the results of a Google search for the eatery.
This angered the restaurant owner, so she took the blogger to court. The Bordeaux High Court ruled in the owner's favour on 30 June 2014 during an emergency hearing not because of the review itself, which “falls within the scope of freedom of expression” according to the judgement, but because of its title, which was considered to be defamatory.
The blogger, who had no lawyer, withdrew the review on her own accord, although the court did not request her to do so. However, it can be read on tuxicoman's blog here or as a cached version. Reeling from the experience, “L'Irrégulière” decided not to appeal.
Under the French system for emergency hearings, the court rules chiefly on the basis of whether the plaintiff suffered wrongdoing as a result of the actions of the defendant — in this case, an emergency measure was issued, but could be overturned if a full hearing is to take place. Why did the case merit an emergency hearing in the first place? Well-known lawyer and blogger Maître Eolas, who has 142,000 followers on Twitter, offered one answer:
Nouveau : des restaurants poursuivent leurs clients qui osent les critiquer. Il faut dire qu’ils trouvent des juges pour leur donner raison.
— Maitre Eolas (@Maitre_Eolas) 7 Juillet 2014
Newsflash: restaurants are suing customers who dare to criticise them. And it has to be said, they are finding judges who will decide in their favour.
He went on to analyse the case in further detail for L'Express magazine:
Il ne faut pas donner à cette décision une portée plus large qu'elle n'a [...] Le droit de critique existe. Il peut être sanctionné en cas d'abus. La distinction classique est quand il y a intention de nuire ou concurrence déloyale si le dénigrement est fait par un concurrent. Ainsi, si cet article avait été publié par quelqu'un qui tient un autre restaurant de pizza du Cap Ferret, on aurait été dans le cas de la concurrence déloyale puisqu'il y aurait volonté de dénigrer pour faire fuir le client. Or ici, c'est une cliente mécontente qui raconte une expérience malheureuse. On a tout à fait le droit d'expliquer pourquoi on n'est pas satisfaits, en mettant le titre que l'on veut.
This ruling should not be given more significance than it actually has [...] There is such a thing as a right to criticise. This criticism can be penalised, however, if it becomes abusive. Usually, the distinction lies in whether there is intention to cause harm or, in the case of defamation by a competitor, the creation of unfair competition. So, had this article been published by someone who runs another pizza restaurant in Cap Ferret, it would have been a matter of unfair competition. This is because there would have been intention to defame in order to drive customers away. But in this case, it is a dissatisfied customer describing an unhappy experience. People have every right to explain why they are not satisfied, using whatever title they like.
When other bloggers heard about the matter, they pointed out this type of legal action could overload the justice system. Lady Waterloo, for instance, wrote:
Les juges ont donc condamné cette malheureuse blogueuse, pour L'endroit à éviter au Cap Ferret: Il Giardino, cela en valait il la peine? Je ne le pense pas. Si les juges commencent à s'occuper des blogs qui dénoncent des apéros servis avec du retard sans cacahuètes et du vin trop froid ou trop chaud, j'ai oublié, la Justice sera complètement paralysée.
So the courts have ruled against this poor blogger, for The place to avoid in Cap Ferret: Il Giardino. Was it worth the trouble? I don't think so. If judges start getting involved with blogs criticising delays in serving aperitifs with no peanuts, and wine that's too cold or too warm (I can't remember which), the justice system will grind to a complete halt.
Others referred to the frequent misunderstandings between tourists, restaurateurs and the Internet, like Le Parisien libéral:
La vérité, c'est que désormais, tout resto, tout hôtel, doit faire avec l'existence du Net. Au lieu de faire une pub monstrueuse pour l'Irrégulière, pourquoi Il Giardino n'a pas crée son propre site web, ou fait le dos rond en attendant que ses clients qui ont aimé le resto s'expriment, comme Berthomeau.
The truth of the matter is that from now on, every restaurant and hotel must take account of the existence of the Internet. Instead of creating massive publicity for l'Irrégulière, why didn't Il Giardino create its own website, or weather the storm while waiting for favourable customers to give their opinions, like Berthomeau.
Can Google results be used to attack a blogger? The owner of the restaurant justified herself, saying the article was doing her business harm. “People are allowed to criticise, but there is a way of doing it, with respect, and that was not the case here. Now the court has made a decision and as far as I'm concerned, the matter is closed,” she said.
In fact, the article and the controversy over the judgement still have a high position in the Google search results. SEO expert Tubbydev was amazed at the lack of knowledge of how a search engines work:
Mais surtout, le vrai scandale à notre humble avis est tout entier dans le bout de phrase de la restauratrice: Mais cet article montait dans les résultats Google ..C'est Google qui montre le résultat, avec et par ses algorithmes mais c'est le contenu initial qui est “puni”. Personne ne demande à Google de corriger .. Et a priori aucune demande n'a été faite à Google. [...]
Google est devenu un Dieu ou tout du moins un des éléments de la nature…Non seulement, il est donc IRRESPONSABLE mais en plus, sa force est telle qu'il attise encore plus la censure et les problèmes contre les malheureux qui y sont bien considérés .. Le monde à l'envers non ?
But the real scandal, in our humble opinion, lies in the remark made by the restaurant owner: “But this article was rising in the Google search results.” It's Google that displays the result, with and through its algorithms, and yet it is the original content that gets “punished”. Nobody asks Google to make corrections. And, a priori, no request has been made to Google. [...]
Google has turned into some kind of god, or force of nature. Not only is it IRRESPONSIBLE, but its power is such that it encourages more censorship and creates problems for those unfortunate enough to be well regarded. The world has turned upside down, no?
While efficacitic.fr advises caution when it comes to reviews, Elisabeth Porteneuve, a self-described “Internet veteran,” anticipates that businesses may begin exploiting the so-called “right to be forgotten“.
— Elisabeth Porteneuve (@EPorteneuve) 7 Juillet 2014
The next step: the right to be forgotten, removal of the review from Google with the help of the [French data privacy authority] National Commission on Informatics and Liberty … the judges and the legislators!
The European Court of Justice ruled in May that individuals may request that search engines delete certain search results if they are found to be “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed.” Google, the plaintiff in the case before the court, has now implemented systems for reviewing and enacting requests. Modifications to search results will be implemented only within the EU.
While the implications of this case regarding freedom of expression on the Internet are still a matter for debate, the publicity continues to have a detrimental effect on the restaurant. Although it is no longer readable on Culturelle, the controversial post title remains visible in Google.fr search results.