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Little and Large: the justice minister and the search engine

Paul Brislen, Editor. 08 July 2019, 8:13 am

The Minister of Justice, Andrew Little, has welcomed Google's apparent change of heart over the leaking of details identifying the killer of British backpacker Grace Millane.

A man was arrested and charged with her murder in December, but granted name suppression. The details of his identity are suppressed and the reason for the suppression itself is suppressed - however, Google managed to include his name in an email sent out to subscribers to Google Trends, a service which lets readers find out about the most searched terms in the country.

Google was asked in to the Minister's office for a "please explain" meeting in December and representatives said the company would review its processes to see what could be done to prevent similar actions in future, but last week Google apparently told the minister that no changes would be made.

Little shot back, claiming Google was giving New Zealand "the finger" and writing an opinion piece in which he said Google was big enough to "do better". 

"I would be failing in my duty if, as a minister of justice in a small country, I threw in the towel and decided nothing could be done in the face of a giant international corporation thinking it could ride roughshod over one of the most important principles of criminal justice."

Late on Friday Google responded by apologising for a "miscommunication" and saying the company would, in the short term, switch off the Google Trends service for New Zealand while working on an actual fix, to be released at a later date.

Name suppression is always a tricky issue in an era where news and information can be communicated widely at the push of a button. Newspapers and journalists of bygone eras were predominantly the main form of communication around such matters but today the lines have blurred significantly and courts struggle at times to keep up.

This instance, however, seems much more clearly defined than Google would have liked. Typically Google and the other social media giants claim they aren't publishers in the traditional sense but rather a platform for others to publish on. That provides a certain level of security in such matters, however in this case Google published the email directly itself, leaving it little room to manoeuvre. 

Whether Google actually does build a system that allows it to identify court suppression information or not remains to be seen but for now the score stands at Andrew Little 1, Google 0.


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