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Google faces libel suit in Hong Kong for ‘white powder’ search result

Court of Appeal upholds request from Oriental Press Group to sue US tech giant for a result that allegedly implicates the local firm in drug trafficking

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 February, 2018, 7:44pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 February, 2018, 10:22pm

Google is one step closer to being caught up in a full-blown court battle in Hong Kong after the city judges on Tuesday refused to set aside a libel suit in which the US tech giant’s search engine was accused of implying a local media group was associated with heroin.

The libel suit stemmed from search results and several websites administered by the California-based firm. Oriental Press Group argued in the suit that when their lawyers searched for “white powder newspaper” in Chinese, the group’s name and its newspapers, Oriental Daily and The Sun, would appear in the results.

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“White powder” is a colloquial term for heroin in Cantonese, the newspaper argued. The results caused people to misunderstand that the group and its newspapers were founded with money earned from drug trafficking, which they are still involved in, they said.

Four other websites administered by Google also featured what the group called the defamatory phrase, according to the Oriental Press.

But since Google is headquartered in the United States, the newspaper applied and won permission from the Court of First Instance in 2016 to serve court papers in another jurisdiction despite objections from Google’s lawyers.

The Court of Appeal on Tuesday upheld the lower court’s ruling. With the green light to serve the court document, the ruling means the suit will proceed to a full trial, as the US firm is expected to defend itself in a Hong Kong court.

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In a bid to bar the press group’s request during the present proceeding, senior counsel Benjamin Yu, for Google, had argued that the case should not continue because the media group had failed to show how its businesses and reputation had been hurt by the allegedly defamatory results.

But Justice of Appeal Peter Cheung disagreed in the judgment he wrote on behalf of his fellow justices, Maria Yuen and Susan Kwan.

“Without proceeding to the trial, the court is not in a position to determine this issue in isolation of the relevant facts,” he wrote.

Yu also asserted that the search results did not reach a substantial amount of people for the case to stand.

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But the judge countered that the results did reach enough people, noting that the average monthly searches amounted to 320 between April and October 2015. It means that there were about 2,000 searches over that time.

The tech behemoth has been dragged into various court battles around the world over content issues in the past few years. Just last year, the Canada’s Supreme Court dealt with a dispute in which a company demanded Google to remove from search results its rival, which had been misusing its trademark.

In 2014, Google was taken to court in London by Max Mosley, a former president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, the governing body for Formula One. The tech firm was asked to remove images the man taking part in a sex party from its search results.