A French court has ordered Google to block from its search results pictures of former Formula One motor racing president Max Mosley participating in a sado-masochistic sex party with five women.
Google's lawyers are still studying Wednesday's ruling and plan to appeal. They say the Paris High Court wants the company to build a censorship machine.
The pictures were initially published under the headline "F1 BOSS HAS SICK NAZI ORGY WITH 5 HOOKERS" on March 30, 2008, by now-defunct British newspaper News of the World, which paid one of the women to record the event using a hidden video camera. A subsequent court case found that, while the video showed participants speaking German and wearing modern German military uniforms or playing the role of prisoners, there was no evidence of a Nazi theme. In the same ruling, the High Court of England and Wales found that the newspaper had infringed Mosley's right to privacy and awarded him £60,000 (then US$120,000) in damages.
Mosley has also had publication of the photos declared illegal in separate cases in France and Germany, according to a statement released by his U.K. lawyers, Collyer Bristow.
"This is a welcome decision. The action was brought in respect of a small number of specific images ruled illegal in the English and French courts several years ago. Despite their illegality and my repeated notifications to them, Google continued to make the images available on its own web pages," Mosley said in the statement.
However, the company maintains that it has responded to Mosley's notifications by removing links to the photos. href="http://googlepolicyeurope.blogspot.fr/2013/09/fighting-against-censorship-machine.html">Google has complied with Mosley's requests to block hundreds of Web pages</a>] from its search results, it said in a September blog post.
In the present case, Mosley had asked the Paris High Court to go further, banning Google from showing or linking to nine specific photos without waiting for notification about individual publications of them.
The court ordered that Google France and its U.S. parent company not show or link to the images for five years, or pay a €1,000 (US$1,575) fine for each lapse. It is not clear whether the ruling, which Google has two months to implement, is intended to apply to Internet users outside France, and Google's lawyers are still studying it.
"This is a troubling ruling with serious consequences for free expression and we will appeal it. Even though we already provide a fast and effective way of removing unlawful material from our search index, the French court has instructed us to build what we believe amounts to a censorship machine," said Google Associate General Counsel Daphne Keller in a statement.
A company spokesman declined to answer further questions about the case.
Wednesday's ruling only concerns Google, and will not affect the publishers of the Web pages carrying the images, which will remain online. Nor will it affect other search engines -- and a rapid comparison with Microsoft's Bing shows that it offers an equally comprehensive selection of links to the disputed images in its search results.
Peter Sayer covers open source software, European intellectual property legislation and general technology breaking news for IDG News Service. Send comments and news tips to Peter at email@example.com.