Los Angeles (March 24, 2004) -- CPA Mark Maughan and his Rolling Hills Estates, Calif., firm Brown & Maughan are suing Google and other search engines powered by Google, including AOL, Time Warner and Yahoo!, for libel, “products liability” and “unfair business practices,” claiming that their searches have returned “false, misleading and injurious results” about him and his practice.

The suit, filed March 19 in Los Angeles Superior Court, claims that last year Maughan’s family members typed his name into the search engine and received results that “falsely represent that plaintiffs Maughan and/or Brown & Maughan have been disciplined for gross negligence, for failing to timely submit a client's claim for refund of overpayment of taxes, and for practicing as a CPA without a permit."

An Associated Press report indicated that Google maintains it wasn't responsible and said the California State Board of Accountancy was responsible for posting the alleged damaging information, even though most of what Maughan and his firm found offensive didn't appear on the state board site.

The state board’s site does, however, list a violation whereby Maughan and his firm were penalized for “failing to supply the board with copies of a financial report representing the highest level of service rendered, in accordance with Section 89.1 of the California Code of Regulations” and added that, “failure to pay the administrative fine caused the board to withhold renewal of his CPA license.”

“I am not entirely certain of all Mr. Maughan’s allegations, but I can say everything posted on our site, which you can find by searching us or through Google, is true and accurate,” said Gregory Newington, chief of enforcement at the California board. “We post all disciplinary actions, and when it gets to level of actual discipline it’s our policy to treat this as public information so consumers can use it when they make choices in the marketplace.”

John Girardi, the attorney representing Maughan and his firm, said the problem lies with Google's patented PageRank algorithm search system. He indicated that PageRank, created by Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, "reformats information obtained from accurate sources, resulting in changing of the context in which information is presented."

He also said PageRank "scans the source, but in doing so, it's not a literal transmission. A literal transmission would be fine."

Girardi wants a court order to prevent Google from using PageRank. He said members of a class action could include anyone also allegedly libeled by the search engine. He also seeks unspecified monetary damages.

-- Seth Fineberg

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