French cultural blogger Caroline Doudet, better known online as L’Irrégulière, who reviews books, films and TV series on her blog Cultur’elle, has been convicted by a French court for being ranked too well by Google. Or more exactly, for publishing a piece discouraging readers from eating at a Cap Ferret pizzeria.
The court requested she changed the blog entry title, seen as denigrating. L’Irrégulière elected to remove the whole article instead. “Technically, it was quicker to remove than to edit, especially since Google does as it pleases anyway, as we can see with the cached page”, she explains in an email interview.
L’Irrégulière reproached the restaurant for its terrible service, a criticism echoed by more than a few reviews on Trip Advisor, although a near-equal number rave about the place and its pizzas.
The whole affair happened on the down low, barely mentioned by L’Irrégulière herself, until lawyer and star Tweeter @Maitre_Eolas (142K followers) highlighted it on 7 July. The news was picked up by media analysis site Arrets Sur Image and has since made headlines in specialist digital publications as well as in mainstream news outlets such as Le Monde and The Independent.
Ms Doudet, who acknowledges being surprised by the support she’s received from readers and strangers alike, says she didn’t expect the reactions to reach such proportions: “I was always going to let my readers know about it, probably on Facebook since I didn’t write about the whole affair on my blog itself. I doubt it would have had such a snowball effect though”.
In addition to being asked to edit her title, L’Irrégulière has to pay up €2,5000 in damages, a significant amount for this high-school teacher. Asked by her readers how they could best support her, the blogger set up a crowdfunding page on platform Pot Commun. She’s since had to shut it down since the process isn’t allowed by the French tax administration.
So is this the end of bloggers’ freedom of speech in France? Unlikely.
Although seemingly about slander, this ruling is actually about Internet misunderstanding and how behind the judicial system is. The judge asked for the title to be edited, ignoring caching. The restaurateur brought the case to the courts because “the article was going up and up in Google ranking”, which is the nature of SEO and something no amount of ruling can do anything against. Ms Doudet declared to the BBC that “this decision creates a new crime of ‘being too highly ranked [on a search engine]’, or of having too great an influence’”. The Google algorithm (as well as people’s searches) is responsible for that ranking, not her.
The restaurateur, like the lawyer who advised her, ignored that any outcome favourable to them would be met with an Internet storm. Today, anyone searching for “Il Giardino Cap-Ferret” on French or English search engines will be met with articles about the ruling rather than about the greatness (or lack of) of its cuisine. The damage to the restaurant reputation is higher than to Cultur’elle, a thoughtful, well written and intelligent amateur French blog that, ironically, I would never have discovered otherwise. Of course, this is a perfect example of the Streisand effect whereby strong attempts to crush one bit of information from becoming public results in its popularisation.
As Eloise Wagner, an intellectual property lawyer, writes for Le Nouvel Observateur, lawsuits prompted by bad reviews are nothing new in the gastronomy world, although they tend to be about guidebook criticism. French law allows criticism providing it is fair, objective and not made with the intention of damaging a reputation.
Ms Doudet elected not to have legal representation at the emergency hearing because it came as a surprise and she wasn’t able to get any in a short period of time. A lawyer would have argued that the review wasn’t done to damage the restaurant but based on a series of facts experienced by the blogger, which she lays out in the entry: dishes sent in the wrong order, unprofessional service etc. A lawyer would also have quoted a number of French and European prior cases and legal texts that go against the ruling.
Since, under French law, the ruling against L’Irrégulière doesn’t create a legal precedent, but that hopefully the reaction to it will be a cautionary tale for other companies wishing to pursue a similar route, it is unlikely the affair will have many freedom of speech consequences.
As for Ms Doudet, she hopes the ruling won’t change the way she writes her blog although she observes “there are topics I might avoid, which is silly since I have been to many nice places recently. It’s true I rarely write rants like this one, and when I do it tends to be more about news topics than brands. Regarding books, my reviews tend to be quite measured anyway and I doubt any publisher would risk a trial.”