Ask.com Not Liable for Search Results or Indexing Decisions–Murawski v. Pataki

By Eric Goldman

Murawski v. Pataki, 2007 WL 2781054 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 26, 2007)

William Murawski is one of those not-going-to-win political candidates from New York (strongly reminiscent of Carl Person). Unhappy with the 2006 election process, Murawski sued a variety of parties for their role in suppressing his candidacy. For our purposes here, let’s focus on Murawski’s claims against Ask.com and Yahoo.

With respect to Ask.com, Murawski claims that Gunzburger, who operates the website politics1.com, defamed Murawski by putting his “name in a list directly below a member of the Communist Party.” He goes on to claim that Ask.com thus “showed plaintiff to be associated with the Communist Party (as a result of the alleged statement on http://Politics1.com).” According to the court, Gunzberger published the following text on his site:

Maura DeLuca (SWP)-Garment Worker & Communist Political Organizer

& Ben O’Shaughnessy (SWP)-College Student & Communist Political Organizer

Bill Murawski (Write-In)-Journalist, Public Access TV Show Producer & Frequent Candidate

& Donald Winkfield (Write-In)-Journalist

Based on this presentation, the court says Gunzburger didn’t defame Murawski even though (because Ask.com and other search engines don’t show line breaks in the search results) search results may contain the words “Communist Political Organizer Bill Murawski” in that order. But per 47 UC 230, Ask.com isn’t on the hook either because its search results are based on content from another information content provider (politics1.com). Murawski also asked Ask.com to stop indexing politics1.com, and Ask.com’s decision not to do so is an editorial judgment protected by 47 USC 230.

This case reminds me a little of the Maughan case, where Google’s automated compilation of site descriptions in the search results allegedly created new semantic meaning by remixing the indexed words. It’s nice to see this court recognize that search result presentations and search engine indexing decisions are completely protected by 47 USC 230. This result reinforces the broad discretion given to search engine choices about how to gather and present third party content.

With respect to Yahoo, Murawski claimed that Yahoo prevented him from posting messages to Yahoo groups, which deprived him of his First Amendment rights. Like every other case where a plaintiff has claimed that a private website deprived them of Constitutional rights, the court rejects the claim because Yahoo is a private actor, not a state actor, and therefore not restricted by the First Amendment.

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