Argentines clicking on the local version of Yahoo in search of information about their country's most legendary soccer star (and current national team coach) are in for a disappointment. All they'll see is a disclaimer in Spanish stating: "Due to a court order requested by private parties, we find ourselves obliged to temporarily suspend all or some of the results related to this search." The only exceptions are links to major news media sites. Nor is this peculiar result exclusive to searches for Diego Maradona. The soccer star is just one of 110 major public figures in Argentina to have secured a court order restraining the Argentine versions of Google and Yahoo from serving up search results on their names.
What worries the search engines is that the ruling's legal principle effectively holds them responsible for the content of web sites turned up in their searches.
A spokesperson for Google Argentina labeled the lawsuit "completely illogical. It would be like suing the newsstand for what appears in the newspapers it sells. Or demanding the newsstand vendor to tear out offending pages from the newspapers. The lawsuits should be against the websites carrying the information, not us." Google Argentina has appealed the court order, and says it will not filter any links until the appeal has been decided.
The lawsuit is the work of Martin Leguizamon, 48, a Buenos Aires attorney who has taken on the local versions of the two internet giants on behalf of many of Argentina's best-known actors, models, sports personalities and judges. "We started our first lawsuit two years ago," says Leguizamon. "When Maradona found out about what we were doing he came to see me and asked me to represent him as well."
Maradona, widely viewed as one of the greatest soccer players of all time, has had a career of highs and lows. His two goals against England at the 1986 World Cup - one of them scored illegally with his hand, which he famously attributed to "the hand of God" - helped to symbolically avenge Argentina's defeat in the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas war, and he went on to lead Argentina to victory over Germany in the final that year. But he was banned from the professional game in Italy in 1991 for cocaine use, and he tested positive for drugs at the 1994 World Cup tournament. He recently reclaimed the public spotlight by accepting the job of Argentina's national coach, although in keeping with his mercurial personality, within a week he was threatening to resign if he couldn't get his way on coaching-staff appointments. (See pictures of the UEFA Euro 2008 Soccer Championships.)
But it's not only Maradona and other celebrities who are looking to protect their image by joining Leguizamon's suit; the litigants also include three important judicial figures, among them high-profile judge Maria Servini de Cubria, many of whose rulings have been questioned in the blogosphere and even in the mainstream media. "She is a public official," said the Google Argentina spokesperson. "Where do we draw the line? What should we do regarding critical articles about her in the major online newspapers? Should we block those too? Her presence in the list of lawsuits has made this a political question concerning freedom of information."
To find a way around the ruling, users of Yahoo Argentina, which has complied with the ruling, need only go to the international version of the search engine (not covered by the ruling). Even entering an alternate spelling, such as "Maradon," still turns up a massive number of links to actual Maradona articles.
Google Argentina says it wants to cooperate with the courts, but that it cannot put in place a "wholesale blockage of a name search; it would be absurd, especially because the information would still be available on the web and on other search engines that are not being sued."
Leguizamon argues that the search engines do not discriminate between links to appropiate material and links to pornographic sites that use the images of some of the models he represents. Maradona claims to have seen images of himself on porn sites linked to by Google.
Although Google Argentina denies it has started filtering any links to sites with Maradona content, Leguizamon claims that in the last two months many offending links no longer appear. But the lawyer is not content merely to shut down what he deems offensive searches; he is seeking compensation both for any damages resulting from those searches and even for innocent pictures of Maradona turned up by Google's "Images" search. The lawyer says these are at odds with Argentina's legal restrictions on unauthorized commercial use of photographic portraits. Although Leguizamon would not disclose the amounts being demanded in court, sources close to the case say that the compensation being sought in each case is between 100,000 and 400,000 pesos ($30,000-$120,000), although in Maradona's case the amount is certain to be much higher.
Leguizamon says he wants to see big search engines such as Google and Yahoo filtering all their results for pornographic or other content offensive to his clients. "Search engines have the capability of doing that, and we want to see it implemented," says Leguizamon. "Without the link in Google or Yahoo," he adds, "nobody would even know these sites exist."