by Seth Fineberg
Los Angeles — A recent lawsuit filed by a CPA alleging libel against major search engine Google and all Google-powered affiliated entities could have legal implications that extend beyond the accounting profession.
Mark Maughan and his Fountain Valley, 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.” Maughan’s suit claims that their searches have returned “false, misleading and injurious results” about him and his practice.
Maughan’s suit was filed March 19 in Los Angeles Superior Court. It claims that last year, Maughan’s family members typed his name and the word “tax” into a Google search and received results, according to the suit, 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 license.”
In the suit, Maughan seeks unspecified monetary damages.
Maughan claims that he is only guilty of practicing as a CPA without a license, and that the remaining search information pertains to another accountant who shares his last name and his first initial.
Maughan’s lawyer, John Girardi, from Los Angeles-based law firm Girardi & Keese, said that Google maintained that it was not responsible for the returned search information, and that the California State Board of Accountancy bore responsibility for posting the alleged damaging information.
A Google spokesman declined to comment, stating that the company has a policy of not publicly discussing legal matters until after they are resolved.
The California board’s site lists a violation for which Mark Maughan and his firm were penalized for practicing without a CPA license, a result of Maughan failing to renew his CPA credential and not returning requested documents on time. He eventually was suspended and fined for that action.
“We’ve told the [California] board about the situation [with the other Maughan violations], but they said there is nothing they can do about it,” Maughan said.
According to the board’s Web site, which posts disciplinary actions taken against its membership for seven years, Mark Maughan and his firm were suspended from practicing for 30 days; paid fines totaling $1,500 and a $4,360.17 reimbursement to the state board for investigative and prosecution costs; and completed of a board-approved ethics exam.
Maughan said that his license is restored now and he is “in good standing” with the board, but he claims to have lost business because of the combination of information about him on the board site and the alleged incorrect Google search results.
“I didn’t have a lot of turnover. [But] after 15 or 20 years, when clients leave with no explanation, that concerns me,” Maughan said.
Gregory Newington, chief of enforcement at the California State Board of Accountancy, stands by the organization’s policy of posting violations for up to seven years and believes, from what he knows of the case, that Maughan’s claims are no fault of the board’s.
“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 Newington. “We post all disciplinary actions, and when it gets to the level of actual discipline, it’s our policy to treat this as public information so consumers can use it when they make choices.”
Girardi said that 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 that 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 that members of a class action could include anyone also allegedly libeled by the search engine.
At press time Google had not filed an appeal, nor was a hearing date set.
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