Google Sued for Publishing Home Address–Harris v. Google

By Eric Goldman

Harris v. Google, Inc., 1:10-cv-21119-AJ (complaint removed to S.D. Fla. April 8, 2010). The original complaint filed in state court. Google’s removal to federal court.

Jonathon Harris sells rare coins. His business office is in Stuart, Florida, and he lives in Jupiter, Florida. As gold prices soared, Harris claimed a heightened fear of being robbed; and to the extent his home address was publicly known, he feared that criminals would seek him out there.

Searches for Harris’ business in Google Phonebook pointed potential customers to his home address in Jupiter, not his business address in Stuart. Google Phonebook provides a takedown procedure that promises a “permanent” fix within 48 hours. Harris claims that he made a takedown submission and Google initially honored it; but subsequently his home address showed up again, and Google then ignored multiple takedown requests. He sued in state court for public disclosure of private facts and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Google has removed the complaint to federal court.

On its face, I am skeptical that publication of Harris’ home address was sufficiently “outrageous” to satisfy the prima facie elements of either of his claim. But even if it does, Google ought to be protected by 47 USC 230. It appears that Google Phonebook is provided by a third party provider, so it should qualify as third party content to Google, and the types of claims Harris makes are squarely covered by 230. Compare, e.g., the Doe v. MySpace cases, where the victims actually experienced physical harm; here, Harris just raises the possibility of prospective harm.

While this looks like an easy 230 case, I wonder if this case implicates some of the interstices of the Barnes v. Yahoo ruling. At its core, Harris isn’t complaining just about the publication of his home address; he is also complaining that Google Phonebook’s promised a fix and didn’t deliver. Per Barnes, any negligence-style claim for failure to remove should be preempted; but did the website disclosures provide Harris with sufficient grounds for a promissory estoppel claim? (Note he didn’t make a promissory estoppel claim per se, but it is perhaps implicit in the claims he did make). Ultimately, even if he tries to push the promissory estoppel angle, Harris may have difficulty establishing sufficient reliance on the Google Phonebook disclosures.

I am a little confused why Harris’ court filings didn’t redact his home address. As is so common for plaintiffs bringing privacy invasion lawsuits, Harris’ lawsuit may have been counterproductive at trying to keep the world from knowing his home address. In this respect, I’m reminded a little of the Boring v. Google lawsuit; like the Borings, perhaps Harris is unusually sensitive about his home privacy, and a public lawsuit is an ineffectual method of preserving that. Then again, I bet Harris’ lawsuit would not have even materialized if he hadn’t felt that Google was such a black box when he repeatedly complained.