NEW YORK (MainStreet) - Lorton, Va. locksmith Mark Baldino has picked a fight with Internet heavyweight Google, and at issue is that, according to Baldino, Google habitually returns results that are riddled with lies, deception, even criminal intent.
He went to court in mid October in the U.S. District Court in Virginia to slug it out with Google.
Call this a 2014 David vs. Goliath battle royale, where you are not just a viewer but you have real skin in the game if Baldino's complaints are valid.
At least some third party lawyers think he has as much chance of prevailing as the proverbial snowball in hell.
Many consumers and small business owners, though, are pulling for Baldino.
"People think this search engine stuff is accurate," said Baldino. "A lot of times it isn't."
He included Ziplocal and Yellowbook in his suit, alleging that all such services serve up results that are polluted with what Baldino called "phony listings."
Baldino's argument is simple. Search in Google for "Virginia locksmith" and, said Baldino in his complaint, Google's search engine returned 1,000 locksmiths. Just one problem: at least 575, by Baldino's count, were unlicensed.
That result raises terrifying possibilities. Burglars could masquerade as locksmiths, re-key a door, keep a copy for themselves and, at a convenient time, unlock the door and empty the home.
Of course there is the possibility of sub-standard work.
"I can't see why Google wants to print false information," said Baldino in an interview with MainStreet. "They should be more responsible for what they print. For Baldino, too, there is his claim of significant loss of income - that is, calls that would have come into him are going to unlicensed locksmiths found in Google searches, according to his complaint.
It's not just locksmiths, either, said Baldino. His belief is that listings for many occupations are contaminated with links to the unqualified and the unlicensed, because apparently Google acquires many of its listing from third parties including bogus locksmiths who create misleading web pages. Remember this because it may be key to how the law plays out. Nonetheless, it would be easy, Baldino added in the interview, for Google to doublecheck its listings. For locksmiths, he said, the company could cross-reference listings with state records of locksmith licenses. No license in the state database, no listing in Google; it's that simple, he said.
Baldino did admit in the interview that since he gave notice of intent to file, Google had cleaned up its locksmith listings, at least in the Washington, D.C. area. He said in a recent search of Virginia locksmiths, he saw only around 50 bogus listings.
He added that Google, et. al. - by retrieving many fake listings - force him and other small businesses to spend significant money buying priority listings in search results and also on Search Engine Optimization (SEO), which are techniques designed to snare higher search placement.
Said Baldino in a statement: "They saturate requests for information with false listings to inflate the cost of advertising for legitimate businesses. They cause direct monetary damages to businesses and consumers that depend on search engines for factual information. They fail to screen out listings placed by criminal enterprises before publishing the listings online. Web-based search engines are creating a condition to profiteer: to make or seek to make an excessive or unfair profit, especially illegally or in a black market or racketeering activity. The most startling fact is that every citizen that uses a search engine is at risk of becoming a victim to these online scams."
Can Baldino prevail? Not a chance, said attorney Martin Russo of Gusrae Kaplan and Nusbaum in New York. "Google will get this case dismissed," he predicted.
The irony is that everything Baldino alleges may be true, but that would not matter. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 essentially grants publishers of information on the the Internet immunity, said Russo. They are not held responsible for what they publish that is provided by third parties such as locksmiths, be they legitimate or not.
Russo indicated that Baldino tries to skirt that by alleging that Google is guilty of RICO violations - the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act that was used to topple many Mafia families for instance - but Russo expressed deep skepticism that Baldino can make that stick.
How can Baldino win?
Bryan Sullivan of Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae in Los Angeles said that if Baldino can establish that Google did not follow its own stated policies regarding listings and what it publishes, he just might have a case.
Sullivan stressed that he did not know the full details - and was not making a prediction of the outcome - but if it were his case, that is a direction he would focus on.
However, Sullivan also said: "Google will fight this tooth and nail. They will aggressively defend themselves, If they don't, all kinds of cases will come out of the woodwork."
Where does all this leave ordinary consumers? Hard to say - but who doesn't want more accurate and trustworthy Web search results? Say yes to that and it's an endorsement of Baldino.
--Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet