Monday, June 23, 2014

Worldwide Interim Injunction Against Google

Equustek Solutions Inc v Jack, 2014 BCSC 1063

In Equustek Solutions, Fenlon J of the BCSC granted a worldwide interim injunction against Google Inc, ordering it to cease indexing or referencing in search results on its internet search engines certain specified websites operated by the defendants in the underlying action. While this isn’t a patent case, it’s interesting enough that I’ve decided to post on it. Given that the subject is outside my main expertise, this post is largely descriptive, but I will say that Fenlon J’s decision struck me as well reasoned. While this type of order has apparently never before been made by a Canadian court [107], I didn’t see any obvious gaps of law or logic. The result seems surprising, but it is important to recognize that “Google acknowledges that it can do what is being asked of it. Google does not assert that it would be inconvenienced in any material way or that it would incur expense to do so” [153].

Google is not a party to the underlying dispute, which related to passing off and the defendants’ use of the plaintiffs’ trade secrets. The defendants had failed to comply with various court orders made against them and continued to sell their product in violation of these court orders, including an order prohibiting the defendants from carrying on business through any website [7]. After that last order, Google voluntarily complied with the plaintiffs’ request to remove specific webpages or URLs from its search results (ie from searches originating in Canada), but it was unwilling to block an entire category of URLs from its search results worldwide [9].

The bulk of the decision concerns jurisdictional questions. Justice Fenlon held that the British Columbia courts have territorial competence, in large part because Google does business in the jurisdiction by selling advertising to British Columbia clients, including to the defendants [50]. Google argued that this analysis would give every state in the world jurisdiction over Google’s search services, but Fenlon J noted that this “flows as a natural consequence of Google doing business on a global scale, not from a flaw in the territorial competence analysis” [64]. She then held that the BC courts were an appropriate forum as compared with the California courts. Google’s primary contention on this point was the difficulty of enforcing a Canadian judgment in California, which is the location of Google’s head office. Fenlon J noted that while Canadian courts are reluctant to grant injunctive relief against extra-territorial parties for this reason, the law did recognize exceptions to this general rule; there were some sanctions which the BC court could take in relation to Google’s activities in BC; Google had not established that the Canadian order would be unenforceable under California law; and in any event, Google had not shown that a California order (assuming one could be obtained) would be more appropriate than a BC order, as Google had not shown that the technical steps needed to carry out the order would be carried out in California. Fenlon J also noted that even though Google was not actively aiding the defendant’s contempt, that is not the sole ground for making orders against a non-party, including those outside the jurisdiction, as Norwich orders and particularly Mareva injunctions illustrate.

On the question of whether the injunction could be granted on the facts of the case, Google made four main arguments. First, Google argued that it cannot, as a practical matter, monitor content or arbitrate disputes over content. Fenlon J responded by noting that Google was not being required to monitor the content of the defendants’ websites, or the content of other websites that might provide information about the defendants’ products, but only to block the particular URLs which were specified in the order itself [137].

Second, Google submitted that de-indexing entire websites without regard to content of the specific URLs would constitute undue censorship. Fenlon J responded by noting that “Google acknowledges that it alters search results to avoid generating links to child pornography and ‘hate speech’ websites. It recognizes its corporate responsibility in this regard, employing 47 full-time employees worldwide who . . . take down specific websites, including websites subject to court order” [139].

Third, Google argued that an order affecting searches might “put Google in the impossible situation of being ordered to do something that could require it to contravene a law in another jurisdiction” [140]. Fenlon J noted that this concern could be addressed in appropriate cases by inserting a so-called Baltic proviso, such as was recognized in Bank Of China v NBM LLC & Ors [2001] EWCA Civ 1933, excusing the non-party from compliance with the order if to do so would breach local laws [143]. In any event, in this case, Fenlon J noted that most countries recognize the importance of protecting trade secrets, and Google did not suggest that the order sought would in fact offend California law, or the law of any other specific state or country in which a search could be conducted [144].

Fourth, Google argued that no court should make an order that has a reach that extends around the world. Fenlon J noted that the order need only be enforced in the particular jurisdiction from which the search engine is controlled. The effect of the order might be felt around the world, but that might also be true of any order relating to physical goods. " For example, a non-party corporation that warehouses and ships goods for a defendant manufacturing company might be ordered on an interim injunction to freeze the defendants’ goods and refrain from shipping them. That injunction could affect orders received from customers around the world" [147].

Finally, with all these preliminaries out of the way, the question remained as to whether the order should be granted on the facts of the case. This turned on whether the plaintiffs had made out a good arguable case, and then on a balance of the interests of the parties. On the first point, “the plaintiffs have not only raised an arguable claim; two of the defendants’ defences have been struck and they are presumed to have admitted the allegations” [151]. As for the balance of interests, the plaintiffs established that they are suffering irreparable harm by the defendants’ ongoing sale of the disputed product on the internet, and they had also established that blocking the defendant’s use of Google’s search services would cripple the defendants’ sales. On the other hand, “Google acknowledges that it can do what is being asked of it. Google does not assert that it would be inconvenienced in any material way or that it would incur expense to do so. The balance of convenience thus favours granting the injunction” [153].

Fenlon J therefore ordered that

Within 14 days of the date of this judgment, Google Inc. is to cease indexing or referencing in search results on its internet search engines the websites contained in Schedule A to the notice of application.

UPDATE: Leave to appeal granted 2014 BCCA 295