French court fines blogger $3,300 over negative restaurant review

by claire mcnear

Last August, a French woman named Caroline Doudet went out to eat in the chic French Riviera town of Cap-Ferret. She had a bad time: the waitstaff was rude, they forgot to bring her her drink, the food wasn’t very good. Then she wrote about it on her blog, and that is when the trouble started.

Doudet maintains a blog called Cultur’elle where since 2010 she has written about “all things feminine,” posting snapshots of her life and reviews by herself and others of books, movies, and, occasionally, restaurants. The meal in Cap-Ferret, at an Italian restaurant called Il Giardino, prompted her to write one such review, under the title “The Place to Avoid in Cap-Ferret: Il Giardino.” (An archive of the review, since deleted from Doudet’s blog, can be found here.)

Six months after Doudet published her review, the restaurant’s owner brought her to court, claiming that the review’s prominent placement in Google results for the restaurant – fourth, according to the court – was harming her business.

The judge ordered Doudet this month to pay a fine of €1,500 to the restaurant owner and €1,000 to cover the owner’s legal costs, a total of more than $3,300. Doudet was also ordered to modify the title of the blog post. Instead, she deleted it, and said she would not appeal the ruling because she did “not want to relive weeks of anguish.”

The decision, Doudet told the BBC, effectively established “a new crime of 'being too highly ranked [on a search engine].’”

Doudet’s case comes just weeks after Google began removing European search results under the “right to be forgotten” policy. Since the European Union’s top court ruled in May that individuals have the right to have some results about them removed from search engines, Google has received more than 70,000 requests for the removal of some 250,000 links. Bing began accepting takedown requests from European users this week.

Under the EU court’s ruling, individuals can have a search engine result removed if it is “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive for the purposes of the data processing.”

Critics have argued that much remains unclear about the mechanics of the policy’s implementation, including how or if Google and other search engines will notify domains that are being unlisted. Already, Google has reinstated links to several news articles it had deleted, though the company declined to elaborate on its rationale.

As for Il Giardino, it seems that the lawsuit might have done exactly the opposite of what the proprietor intended. As of Friday, the restaurant had a rating of 1.2 out of 5 stars on Google Plus over 208 reviews – virtually all of which were written in the last week with the lowest possible mark, with many carrying warnings in line with one that suggested the owner “will likely threaten to sue you.” TripAdvisor and Yelp (both 1.5 out of 5) told much the same story (though at press time Yelp had already removed the majority of the new reviews for violating its terms of services – presumably because those reviewers had not actually been to the restaurant).