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Google Israel Loses Precedent-Setting 'Reputation Theft' Case

An Israeli doctor has sued Google – and won – in a world-precedent setting case.
By David Lev
First Publish: 9/28/2011, 1:15 AM

Attorney Uri Savir
Attorney Uri Savir
Courtesy PR

An Israeli doctor has sued Google – and won – in a world-precedent setting case, after a Tel Aviv court agreed with his contention that the search engine giant had effectively allowed his competitors to hijack his reputation for their benefit. As a result, Dr. Dov Klein, an eminent Israeli plastic surgeon, has been awarded NIS 50,000, plus NIS 10,000 in court costs.

Now, says Dr. Klein's attorney, Uri Savir, Google may be forced to make major changes to its successful Adwords program. “This case has extensive ramifications,” says Savir. “Google has traditionally allowed the use of names as keywords for its search, and an advertiser is allowed to purchase the name of a competitor as an Adword. Thanks to this case, Google may find itself getting sued by many businesses because of what has been ruled illegal activity.”

Adwords is the method Google uses to monetize everyday words and terms, with clients bidding for the rights to those terms; when users search for a specific term on the Google search engine, advertisers who purchased that term in an Adwords auction can have their text or display ad show up on the search results page. Google auctions off the search terms and phrases to the highest bidder, with more popular terms fetching more money.

In this case, Klein discovered in 2007 that competitors of his – in particular, a large plastic surgery clinic – had purchased his name, “Dr. Dov Klein,” as an Adword, specifically in order to display their ads on result pages for searches for his name. Klein sued, claiming that the competitors were seeking to hijack, or at least latch onto, his hard-won reputation, and were illegally associating themselves with his success. Google Israel, for its part, tried to claim that they were not a party to the results, since the search engine was owned by Google Ireland, while the clinic claimed that even if they had bought Klein's name, they only received a few hundred clickthroughs – and a total of 15 customers – during the 15 month period they used “Dr. Dov Klein” as an Adword term.

The court agreed with Klein, saying that Google and the competing clinic had indeed violated his rights, regardless of how many or few people clicked on the ads, and ordered Google and the competing clinic to compensate him. Google was not required to reveal any information on the inner workings of its search engine or Adwords during the trial, but it did emerge that legally, Google search engines around the world are equal – meaning that the decision in the Klein case could, and likely will, set a legal precedent for similar “reputation theft” cases around the world, Savir said.  

“Google's policy of allowing free use of by Adwords advertisers of any term they please including the name of an individual or brand by a competitor, is wrong,” Savir said, “and the decision means that Google is going to have to be more conscious of the rights of individuals to their names and reputations.”