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Locksmith Sues Google, Others Claiming Spam Local Listings Illegal
Lawsuit contains echoes of Canadian Pharmacy case facts.
A Northern Virginia locksmith has sued Google, Yellowbook (hibu) and Ziplocal under multiple state and federal laws, including the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), “to remove fraudulent locksmith listings from their search results.”
The complaint alleges that Google and the other defendants permitted illegal locksmith listings in search results causing $8.4 million in lost earnings/profits to the plaintiff, which was at one point an advertiser in each of the defendant services.
In Virginia and Maryland, where the plaintiff (Baldino’s Lock and Key Service) operates, it’s illegal to advertise as a locksmith without a license. The complaint (embedded below) argues that Google and its co-defendants don’t screen out unlicensed listings in an effort to inflate competition for SEO/SEM placement and compel legal locksmiths to “pay a premium” to appear in search results.
Public records, say the plaintiff, indicate the are only 150 registered locksmiths in Maryland and 425 in Virginia. Defendants “knew [they were] publishing the names of hundreds of illegal locksmiths in Virginia and Maryland and deriving revenue, directly or indirectly, by doing so” according to the complaint. Plaintiff also alleges that the public is harmed by the practice of allowing unlicensed, out-of-state locksmiths to appear in search results.
Baldino’s argues Google and the others “deliberately mislead consumers by publishing false information with prior knowledge that the information is deceptive.” Platintiff Mark Baldino said that he notified Google of the falsity of locksmith listings.
While you might have an immediate impulse to disregard this lawsuit as the outlandish claims of a frustrated local business owner, its allegations are similar (perhaps by design) to those against Google in the Canadian Pharmacy case. There, Google paid $500 million to settle with the U.S. Justice Department.
The core of that case was the Justice Department’s claim that Google knowingly sold and profited from illegal advertising involving Canadian pharmacies. The Baldino lawsuit is not quite as sensational, but it is analogous in some respects: state law makes it illegal to advertise as a locksmith without a license, public records make legal locksmiths discoverable, Google allegedly had knowledge of the illegality of the locksmith listings but failed to act and made money from the inclusion of the listings.
It will be interesting to see whether Google aggressively fights the case or settles. Google will have various incentives to fight the claim. However, going to trial and losing on the merits also carries risks. Conversely, even if plaintiff won on liability, it very much remains to be see whether could prove his $8.4 million in claimed damages.