Justice Minister Andrew Little has laid down the law in a meeting with Google, after the giant multinational breached suppression laws in the sensitive case of murdered backpacker Grace Millane.
Little says Google has to adhere to New Zealand laws if it wants to be a distributor and publisher of news in this country.
Failure to comply with court orders could see the multinational face legal action, or an organised international effort to stop them trying to operate above the law.
The 26-year-old man charged with the murder of UK backpacker Grace Millane has been granted interim name suppression by the court.
However, Google has breached that name suppressions, and Little said that was not acceptable.
“I don’t accept that [Google] can absolve themselves of responsibility when it comes to breaching suppression orders from our judicial system.”
The search engine giant collated news stories from across the globe – including those outside New Zealand jurisdiction, which had legally named the man – and sent out the automated list to subscribers of Google Trends, including New Zealanders, thus breaking suppression orders.
Little met with Google officials on Tuesday evening, after an earlier meeting was postponed by the search giant, and said companies operating in New Zealand had to adhere to the country’s laws.
“I don’t accept that they can absolve themselves of responsibility when it comes to breaching suppression orders from our judicial system…
“It is their problem, they’ve set themselves up as a publisher of news in this country – as well as many others – it’s for them to adhere to the various rules in each country, and that includes observing suppression orders.”
Little said it was up to Google to make itself aware of suppression orders, and fix its systems – or algorithms – to comply.
Google sent its New Zealand senior manager of policy and government affairs Ross Young to the meeting, along with the corporation’s New Zealand boss Caroline Rainsford. A team of Google’s lawyers Skyped in from the US.
Attorney-General David Parker also joined part of the meeting.
While Little described the atmosphere as “constructive” and “professional”, Newsroom understands the atmosphere was tense.
Google maintained it had not received the suppression orders in time to stop the publication of the man’s name. It received the court order on December 14, when it was made by the judge on December 10, and then went through a process of reviewing the order.
However, the onus of receiving and adhering to suppression orders was on news publishers or distributors. Little reiterated Google needed to comply with suppressions as soon as they were handed down by a judge, not when it received a written notice.
Speaking to media after the meeting, Young said Google would look at what could be done to respect suppression orders to stop a repeat.
“I’m confident we can explore what is possible in the future.”
‘No sympathy’ for digital difficulties
Young referred to Google’s process and the complication of having trillions of dynamic websites on the internet at any one time.
“In fairness they’ve pointed out the difficulty they have,” Little said.
“I’ve said I’m simply not sympathetic to that. I’ve got to make sure orders handed down by a judge in New Zealand are respected, the minute it’s handed down.”
Google understood the seriousness and gravity of the situation, and Little said he took the organisation at its word when it said it would review its systems to try and come up with a fix.
“Publishing across borders might be the reality of the world today, but no justice system should be held to ransom, and told that your orders to ensure a fair trial are not relevant.”
“Publishing across borders might be the reality of the world today, but no justice system should be held to ransom, and told that your orders to ensure a fair trial are not relevant. That’s simply not acceptable anywhere.”
If Google did not comply with New Zealand laws, the government would take advice to potential domestic legal remedies, or a coordinated internal effort to preserve the integrity of justice systems, and stop the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter flouting the law.
This international issue was not expected to disappear anytime soon.
While the driving force may come from a server based overseas, as a distributor and publisher of news in New Zealand, Little said Google had the same obligations as any other media outlet. The company also had an office in New Zealand and employed people in the country.
There was a growing international community that wanted to see the integrity of the justice system preserved, he said.
The New Zealand Government’s warning to Google comes after widespread discussion over whether current suppression rules are relevant or fit-for-purpose in the age of Google and social media.
In the meantime, Little and others – including the New Zealand Bar Association – have made pleas to people and companies to comply with suppression orders, so as to not risk undermining a fair trial in the Millane case.