online law

German court sets legal parameters for people search

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Yesterday, in a small Hamburg court room, something special happened – at least when it comes to the legal parameters of people search applications on the web.

The ligitator, a young woman, sued 123people. Specifically its German web property, which has recently been sold to Pages Jaunes Groupe, for showing a photo of herself on its landing page. The court, however, declared the defendant “not guilty”(in German). To our knowledge this has been the first ruling from a higher court in Europe that puts often critized people search engines out of their, supposedly, legal grey area.

When arguing for their decision, and 123people’s innocence, the judges were referring to another ruling that dates back to 2008, known as the “Google-Thumbnail” ruling. This made its way to Germany’s highest court, the “Bundesgerichtshof”. Plus, the court stated that 123people is “neither temporarly nor permanently storing any of the data” – another main criteria for proving 123people’s right to do so.

The final judgement by the Bundesgerichtshof basically said that Google is allowed to depict copyrighted image material on its SERPs in thumbnail format. The artist, who back then accused Google of infringing copyright laws, must have been aware that her material shows up in Google results, since her site had been search engine optimized and therefore knowingly been within the results.

The 123people judgement not only will send ripples (and reliefs) out in the world of people search engines worldwide but it is also going to be a precedent for further rulings. In another context it also illustrates how dependent online law is on Google’s practices on the web. It’s no secret that today’s law is light-years behind when it comes to an adequate jurisdiction in online law. The big players, mostly Google, set the agenda for what’s right and wrong. Other tech companies and startups are also referring to Google’s practices whenever any part of their business plan might be inflicting with national laws. Considering the fact that in “traditional” judicial terms, Google is (successfully) colliding with copyrighted material billions of times per day, why should other companies that rely on SEO not do so is well. There’s always Goliath, so why not make it happen for David as well.

Aside from the judgement, that happened in Hamburg yesterday, there has also been another ruling in regards to 123people (in German) in February 2010 (and probably as it happens to other people search eninges such as Yasni or Spock all the time) that stated that whenever users are putting up photos on Facebook, they hereby “agree to this by implication”.

If you happen to know of any similiar rulings around the globe then please let us know in the comments. In Germany, respectively Europe, the ruling coming out of Hamburg has definitely set an agenda for people search engines and other SEO focused startups pulling content from external sites.

  • Max Niederhofer
  • Samuel

    The court in Hamburg is a kind of a joke in most of the media/internet-law cases (higher courts often scrap the decisions made in Hamburg). So I think this topic has a quite high possibility of being changed.

  • polyorchnid octopunch

    Interesting. I’m not going to put too fine a point on it, but the judge in the case that decided that a photo of me on facebook implies consent for its use by 123people is wholly ignorant of internet norms. Here are a couple of counter-examples for that particular idiot to consider:

    I have my privacy settings for my photos set to “Friends Only”. Now, maybe I’m unusual, but I don’t generally consider non-living persons such as internet people search companies friends. I don’t even think of them as acquaintances, for that matter. Not only that, having my privacy setting set to Friends Only would, I’d think, not only not imply consent to the use of my photo by a third party, but pretty explicitly indicate that in fact I do not give them consent to use my photo.

    Someone on Facebook posts a photograph of me, puts my name on it, but does not actually tag it with a link to my account. This permits the photo to show up in searches on my name, but doesn’t actively inform me that a photo of me has been posted by a third party. Furthermore, this photo was taken in a private setting but outside of my awareness of the act of taking the picture, nor was any kind of model release signed by me. Where is the implied consent of the use of my image for profit by a third party?

    Mostly it looks like the judge is all for letting companies use people without needing to remunerate them, nor even inform them of that use for profit.

  • tina

    I dont like these kind of search engines.
    Why: bec they dont show the real world..
    Maybe thats good but search for example for

    “Thomas Müller”

    you get a Photo of a german soccer player (which is correct but maybe not the only TM in germany)
    and a Photo of the SS (3rd Reich)

    What does that mean?
    All “Thomas Müller” in Germany are Soccerplayer and Nazis?

    These Searchengines are Crap!

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  • Rich

    The last point about Facebook is interesting. What if you do not yourself use Facebook but someone else sticks up some info about you on it?

    I suppose the same could be said if Google find some info about you that you did not yourself pubish.

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  • Russell E. Perry - CEO 123people

    We appreciate the latest landmark rulings by German courts which express our position and reinforce our line of argumentation. Since we launched 123people in Germany back in 2008, we encountered strong headwinds and a very restricted thinking of self-appointed data and privacy protectionists, often basing their commentary on badly researched and layman arguments to gain media attention in this very sensitive yet important legal matter. Interestingly enough, around 10 million unique visitors use 123people in Germany every month, making up for almost a quarter of our total global traffic of 40 million unique visitors, which proves that there is a huge demand for people search whereas the number of legal inquiries is negligibly low.

    However, we receive almost no legal inquiries from any other country in the world. While the reasons behind this fact are hard to explain, the phenomenon is already known as the “German-Paradox” (Jeff Jarvis at re:publica 2010, Berlin) and we commented upon it on our German blog last April.

    At 123people we believe that the Internet and new products and services will continue to develop at a more accelerated rate and people will have to adapt their social behaviors to remain part of the communication society.

    You can’t hide in a cave, but expect human communication and interaction – embrace the new reality and make it work for you!

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