Google suspends Trends emails after revealing murder suspect’s name

After violating a court suppression order and publishing a murder suspect’s name, Google has suspended its Trends alert emails in New Zealand.

In New Zealand, among other countries, the right to a fair trial includes a court’s being able to order people and organizations to refrain from publishing suspects’ names.

Google didn’t do that. It says it didn’t even mean to, but its Google Trends alerts went ahead and emailed out links to a media report that included the murder suspect’s name.

A few days after the December 2018 murder of British backpacker Grace Millane, Google had sent an email to anyone signed up for its “what’s trending in New Zealand” alert. After Google’s news-gathering algorithm picked up a British newspaper’s report of the suspect’s court appearance, it automatically forwarded the story to all subscribers, including the name of the accused killer in the subject line.

That action violated a suppression order prohibiting publication of the suspect’s name or identification details. Google’s violation sparked outrage in New Zealand, which, with its low serious-crime rate, had been shocked by the murder of the young tourist, believed to have been killed the night before her 22nd birthday.

According to a furious letter published by NZ Minister of Justice Andrew Little last week, when he met with Google representatives six months ago, Google said that the company took the issue seriously and that they’d look into what they could do to fix the problem.

Six months later, according to Little, Google said that the answer to “what can be done to stop this” amounted to “nothing.”

When I confronted New Zealand Google executives about what happened they indicated they took the issue seriously and would look at what they could do to fix the problem. Six months on, they now tell me they can’t – or won’t – do anything.

Really? A company that big can’t figure out how to fix “an obvious risk to justice systems?”, Little said. Sorry, that doesn’t cut it:

I would be failing in my duty if, as a minister of justice in a small country, I threw in the towel and decided nothing could be done in the face of a giant international corporation thinking it could ride roughshod over one of the most important principles of criminal justice.

Little also tweeted out a video clip showing his computer search for the words “don’t be evil,” followed by his text selection of the words “Google’s corporate code of conduct” in a Wikipedia entry.

“Don’t be evil” is, of course, the much-mocked motto that Google dropped back in 2015 when it became Alphabet and decided instead to “Do the Right Thing.”

Little said in his video that, based on the alert, a newspaper had published the prohibited material:

We’ve had a situation where, in a very important trial – the Grace Millane case – a newspaper, helped by Google, has published information that the judge said was suppressed.

Two days after getting scolded by Little, Google sent him a letter saying that the violative email went out to fewer than 200 subscribers.

In the letter, Ross Young, Google’s government affairs and public policy manager, reiterated that the company has a webform in place where court orders can be submitted, saying that it had taken immediate action after to prevent a recurrence of the mistake. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen until four days after the Trends alert was sent.

Little hadn’t been sympathetic to the “nobody told us about the court order” line of defense. It’s up to Google to figure out how to comply, and it shouldn’t be all that hard, given that news outlets manage to do it, he said. From Little’s letter:

One of the issues Google has raised is they don’t know what suppression orders are in force in New Zealand at any time. This doesn’t stop New Zealand based publishers from adhering to the law but I have asked the Ministry of Justice to review how it notifies media about suppression orders as part of its work to implement the new contempt laws.

Young said that Google respects New Zealand law and understands the “sensitivity around this issue”. To ensure that it doesn’t happen again, Google said, it’s suspending Google Trends emails in New Zealand:

In light of the concerns you expressed this week, Google has …suspended Google Trends emails about searches trending in New Zealand. This means that people will no longer receive emails on any trending searches for New Zealand and provides even further assurance against any recurrence.