The government of New Zealand “admonished” search giant Google for publicizing the name of a man charged in the killing of backpacker Grace Millane in Auckland, with justice minister Andrew Little demanding that the company change its algorithms to prevent it from happening again in the future, the New York Times reported on Friday.
According to the Times, at issue are laws designed to ensure a fair trial by allowing a criminal defendant to request their identity be withheld from publication. That’s the case with the defendant in the Millane trial, whose name broke in the British media before it made its way into an automatically generated Google newsletter on trending topics sent to people in New Zealand. Google told the Times that it did not receive a suppression order, but would have complied by geoblocking the name’s visibility in-country if it had:
But several British media outlets published it, and on Thursday Google included the man’s name in the subject line of an email sent to people in New Zealand who subscribe to a service that highlights local topics that are trending online.
Google said in a statement to New Zealand news outlets that it “didn’t receive an order to take action” on the case.
“When we receive valid court orders, including suppression orders, we review and respond appropriately,” the statement said, adding that Google respected New Zealand’s laws.
(In prior instances, Google has said that its U.S.-based search engine is not bound to comply with New Zealand law and that it lacks the technical ability to do a “perpetual review” of information that may be suppressed by court orders.)
While the man was denied a suppression order, he is appealing the decision, which triggers an automatic 20-working-day period when his name cannot be published. After Google publicized the name, it was searched for over 100,000 times in New Zealand, according to the Herald.
The incident has predictably stirred outrage in some quarters of the New Zealand media, with the Spinoff’s Toby Manhire writing:
The media company wasn’t (New Zealand’s) the Herald or Stuff. It wasn’t TVNZ or Newshub or RNZ. New Zealand media outlets, from the hobbyist bloggers to the biggest broadcasters, respected the proscription on naming the accused. Of course they did: they understand consequences for breaching such an order, and in fact spend significant time and resource policing their social media channels to ensure their audience doesn’t breach suppression either.
... The company that paid precisely zero heed to all that is a media and technology corporation from Silicon Valley. A global colossus against which all of New Zealand’s media companies combined amount to a dim pixel. The company is Google.
Little told the Times he took Google’s denial “with a grain of salt,” adding, “They’re going to have to change their algorithm, because it’s not right that they think they can get away with undermining fair trial rights.” He added he would also be applying “moral pressure” to the British press that posted the name, adding, “I don’t accept their arrogance and their conceit in saying that it’s nothing to do with them and New Zealand’s laws are New Zealand’s laws.”
According to the Herald, Little claimed that the only way the name could have made its way to the British media is if a journalist in New Zealand found it on court documents and leaked it. Little said that if that person was located, they would be prosecuted, the Herald wrote. He additionally told the Times that if other options fail to work, he will launch a campaign to have treaties signed subjecting other countries’ media to the same standards.
This isn’t sitting well with some, who have pointed out that New Zealand’s laws do not apply overseas and the internet allows for much faster spread of restricted information. One National MP called the suppression rules “nonsense,” according to the Herald. Lokman Tsui, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s School of Journalism and Communication, told the Times that requiring Google to take down names in anticipation of possible suppression orders would be “scary” and force the company “to actively monitor every court case going on in the world, looking for names and pre-emptively taking them down.”
Google executives from the U.S. and the UK are planning to meet with Little in New Zealand to try and defuse the situation, the Times added.
According to the Herald, Millane’s death has spurred marches in Auckland and Christchurch, as well as a vigil at Mount Maunganui and an open letter to the government asking it to pass stricter laws protecting women and “do better as a nation.” Parliamentary officials have said they plan to pass legislation as a result.
“I can understand how people want the fastest action possible to protect women,” Parliamentary undersecretary for domestic and sexual violence Jan Logie told the Herald. “I want New Zealanders to know we are listening and the work we’re doing is driven by the same sense of urgency.”