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Google suspends Trends email alerts in New Zealand after breaching court order

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New Zealand’s justice minister said Google was ‘flipping the bird’ at local laws

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Google has backed down in a spat with the New Zealand government after its email alert system Trends breached a court order suppressing details of a high-profile murder case. According to Reuters and AFP, Google has suspended its Trends feature in the country following outcry from the New Zealand government.

Last December, these automated email alerts named the man accused of killing 22-year-old Grace Millane, a British backpacker traveling in the country. Her accused killer was granted temporary name suppression to ensure a fair trial, but Google’s automated Trends alerts put his name in the subject line of an email sent to thousands of users.

Google apologized for the error but refused to change how its Trends feature works. An email from the company’s New Zealand government affairs manager Ross Young reported by The Guardian said changes did not need to be made as the case was “relatively unique ... involving a person from overseas, which was extensively reported by overseas media.”

New Zealand politicians reacted strongly to this reply, with justice minister Andrew Little accusing Google of “flipping the bird” at the country’s legal system.

“Google’s contempt for New Zealand law, and for Grace Millane’s family is unacceptable, and I will now be considering my options,” said Little, following meetings with Google executives at the beginning of this week. “In the end, Google is effectively acting as a publisher and publishing material that is under suppression orders in New Zealand, and they cannot and should not be allowed to get away with that.”

Google has reacted to this escalation by shutting down Trends temporarily. In an email to Little’s office reported by AFP, the company said: “We understand the right to a fair trial and acknowledge that this is a fundamental part of the legal system.” Little said he welcomed Google’s decision and that “work on how suppression orders will be upheld in the digital age will continue.”

The case is the latest example of how US tech companies like Google and Facebook are running into difficulties trying to create global products that also respect local laws.

In the UK, for example, politicians have argued that Facebook is incapable of policing “harmful” content on its platform, and needs to be overseen by domestic regulators. In France, Google has been fined millions of dollars for failing to meet EU data privacy laws. And in New Zealand, Facebook was strongly criticized by prime minister Jacinda Ardern for failing to stop the spread of videos of the Christchurch terrorist attacks.

“They are the publisher not just the postman,” said Arden in March. “There cannot be a case of all profit no responsibility.”